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Mudslide deathtoll mounts above 700

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-01-19

The official death toll from Brazil's mudslide disaster continued to rise on Tuesday as more than 700 bodies were recovered, according to the latest count by Rio de Janeiro's state health service.

AFP - The death toll from catastrophic mudslides in Brazil last week rose Thursday to 702 as more bodies were recovered from the devastated mountainous Serrana region near Rio de Janeiro.

Rio's state health and civil defense service, which gave the tally, also said around 14,000 people were homeless or unable to return to unstable areas.

The disaster, which struck Wednesday last week, is the worst of its type in Brazil's history.

The toll was likely to rise further in the days ahead as emergency crews backed by 700 military personnel used helicopters and four-wheel drives to access areas that have been cut off for days.

"I'm never going back there to live. Death will always be in that place," said Roberto Fabiano Augusto, a survivor rescued from the isolated village of Vale de Cuiaba.

More than 50 people died in his village, he said. His family managed to escape, but his neighbors did not. "A lot of my childhood friends died. I don't want to go back there to live," he told AFP after a helicopter brought him to the nearby town of Itaipava.

The commander in charge of air rescues, Commander Luis Antonio Pinto Machado, said "there are still at least 10 areas cut off, which have populations from 500 to several thousand."

From the air, the landslides were easily seen: red scars on mountains with layers of debris beneath. Houses in their path were torn apart, as though blasted by explosives.

Residents were seen pleading for help from the helicopters flying over their heads. When crews descended, they dropped off food and first-aid kits. But in many cases, locals wanted to stay where they were, to secure what was left of their homes.

The government has pledged $450 million in aid, $60 million of which have been released immediately.

Brazilian media called it the worst mudslide disaster in the country's history, surpassing mudslides in a coastal town that killed 437 people in 1967.

Seasonal rains, normally heavy anyway, suddenly intensified unimaginably last week because of a cold front that dumped a month's worth of water in a few hours.

As the water slipped under the soil on the region's steep granite hillsides, the surface gave way, sending avalanches of mud, trees and big boulders crashing down into valley communities, wiping some of them out entirely and killing hundreds.

Houses illegally built on the hillsides -- many of them by poor people occupying public land -- were immediately destroyed, and added to the deadly mass speeding downhill. Many wealthy properties were also swallowed up.

The towns of Nova Friburgo, Teresopolis and Petropolis -- tourist destinations that used to be aristocratic getaways for 19th century Brazilian nobility -- were the worst hit.

Outlying villages were cut off as more than a dozen roads crumbled away or were covered with debris.

For the past few days, military helicopters have been sent out to those isolated areas, rescuing injured survivors and delivering desperately needed food, water and medicine.

Authorities have warned that epidemics are now a real danger.

Bodies are decomposing badly in the tropical heat, and bacteria and parasites normally present in the waterways are multiplying. Officials urged the local population to avoid drinking contaminated runoff water.

Around 17,000 people were being put up in shelters or staying with relatives after losing their homes or having to abandon at-risk areas.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Saturday declared three days of national mourning. Rio de Janeiro state from Monday started observing a longer, week-long period of grieving.

Ordinary Brazilians were rallying to help the devastated population, sending donations of food and clothing to the disaster zone.

Date created : 2011-01-19