ITAIPAVA, Brazil (AFP) – The death toll from devastating floods and landslides in Brazil rose Monday to 655, as the military stepped up efforts to reach isolated communities near Rio by helicopter.
More than 1,500 emergency personnel, including from the army, air force, police and fire services, were mobilized to tackle the disaster — the worst of its kind in Brazil’s history.
“We have just taken a group of firemen to open roads in difficult to access areas and to help with rescues,” military helicopter pilot Lieutenant Sales told AFP after flying over one cut-off village with dozens of desperate residents.
Fears of disease spreading have added urgency to the search for decomposing bodies, and officials have told the local population to avoid using runoff water for drinking.
Rio de Janeiro state meanwhile began seven days of mourning for the victims, adding to a three-day national mourning period declared by President Dilma Rousseff.
The toll looked likely to rise further as roads were cleared to finally allow bulldozers to reach remote hamlets six days after sliding earth swallowed them up.
New mudslides Sunday in a town called Itaipava claimed three more lives, though they were counted apart from the total of 655 given by state news agency Agencia Brasil.
Some 120 people are missing and presumed dead, according to the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, citing state and local officials.
Military helicopters ferried people from mud-wrecked farms to a landing zone in Santa Rita, near Itaipava.
“We were cut off in a jungle area, and luckily they came to rescue us with a helicopter,” said Clorival Sebastiao Filho, 44, who lost a sister-in-law and three nephews.
Around 13,400 people were being put up in shelters or stayed with relatives after losing their homes or having to abandon at-risk areas.
The mudslides that struck the Serrana mountain region just north of Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday last week were caused by rains dumping the equivalent of a month’s precipitation in just a few hours.
Destruction was exacerbated by houses illegally built on deforested hillsides, which Rousseff and state officials have blamed on decades of weak municipal oversight in the area.
But the mayor of Petropolis, Paulo Mastrangi, said “there was no mechanism to be warned of a disaster of this magnitude.”
He added that local officials were now working on plans to stop people living in areas at risk from mudslides “to prevent future tragedies.”
The disaster was the first big challenge in Rousseff’s mandate since she took over from Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on January 1.
After visiting the zone last week, Rousseff had her government send 60 million dollars in immediate emergency aid with another 390 million dollars to follow, as well as several tonnes of medical supplies and 700 armed services personnel to help with rescue and recovery operations.
But she also took the weekend off, going to her private residence in the southern city of Porto Alegre to relax.
Observers said that, though she lacked Lula’s personable charisma, Rousseff appeared to be passing the test.
“The president was active,” said political analyst Rodolfo Texeira, contrasting her performance with that of US president George W. Bush’s notoriously passive response to Hurricane Katrina, which flooded New Orleans in 2005.
“She sent field hospitals, promised aid, and brought to bear the presence of the state.”
Ordinary Brazilians were also rallying to help, sending donations of food and clothing to the disaster zone.