Military uses choppers to help Brazil flood victims

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The Brazilian military took advantage of a break in the weather Sunday to send helicopters to remote areas near Rio hit by landslides and flooding that have killed at least 610 people.

Their priority was to evacuate people in hamlets cut off since Wednesday by rivers of water and mud that carved massive destruction in the Serrana region just north of Rio de Janeiro, a civil defense commander, Colonel Luiz Castro, told reporters.

Bodies that were buried under rubble and sludge would have to wait until teams with heavy equipment could get to the communities, something that could take days because roads were destroyed.

Although the weather was cloudy and unstable Sunday, it was better than Saturday, when persistent rain reduced visibility and swamped Nova Friburgo, one of the mountain towns hardest hit.

Soldiers, civil defense workers, police and rangers were seen gathering in Nova Friburgo, reinforcing teams that so far have pulled 274 bodies from decimated parts of the town.

General Oswaldo de Jesus Ferreira, coordinating the military response, told O Globo newspaper that the 500 servicemen sent to the Serrana would not only recover bodies but also clear roads and distribute food.

The military had 38 vehicles, including two ambulances, and 11 helicopters based out of Teresopolis, another hard-hit town where 263 people died.

Although the toll early Sunday stood at 610 dead, workers transporting bodies said they feared the overall count will rise as rescuers reached outlying hamlets.

"I think in the end we'll see more than 1,000 bodies," said a funeral worker in Teresopolis, Mauricio Berlim. "In one village near here, Campo Grande, there were 2,500 homes and not one is left standing."

President Dilma Rousseff has declared three days of mourning, while Rio authorities said their state will observe a full week of mourning starting Monday.

Authorities made an urgent appeal for donations of blood, bottled water, food and medicine, and for medically trained people to help.

At least four refrigerated trucks were parked in front of a makeshift morgue inside a Teresopolis church to take bodies as decomposition and disease became concerns.

The disaster, which media called the worst tragedy of its kind in Brazil's history, struck sleeping families Wednesday before dawn.

Seasonally heavy rains were suddenly intensified by a cold front, dumping a month's worth of precipitation in just eight hours, causing torrents of water and mud that wiped out everything in their path.

Water, food and electricity were still lacking in some areas of the Serrana four days after the disaster, with authorities struggling to deliver supplies over fully or partially collapsed roads. Telephone communications were unreliable though progressively being restored.

A municipal official in Teresopolis, Solange Sirico, told Brazilian television there was a risk of epidemics breaking out as bodies decomposing in the tropical heat mingled with water runoff.

"Also, in all the mountain region, there is a danger of snakes, scorpions and spiders," she added.

Forecasters warned that the wet weather was likely to last for a few more days.

"We are predicting a light but steady rain, which is not good because it could lay the conditions for more landslides," said the head of the national weather institute, Luiz Cavalcanti.

Originally a 19th-century getaway for Brazilian aristocracy, the Serrana region has come to rely on tourism for its livelihood.

Nova Friburgo, founded by the Swiss in 1819, has ongoing close ties with Geneva, where the foreign ministry said a team of expert relief workers would arrive later Sunday to assess the community's urgent needs.

© 2011 AFP

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