Brazil slide survivors left to fend on own
Published: Saturday, January 15, 2011 at 9:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 15, 2011 at 9:56 p.m.
TERESOPOLIS, Brazil — Pointing at the cliff of crumbling red clay, Renato Motta de Lima described a landscape that now existed only in memory: here, his grandmother's house; there, the church; below, a banana grove and the home of an aunt, uncle and the shy teenager who was his cousin.
They and scores of neighbors from Cascata do Imbui lay buried underneath mud and debris at the bottom of the once-lush hillside, victims of massive mudslides that killed at least 610 people this week. Body parts were visible in the muck Saturday, with one hand jutting out from under a massive tree trunk as if reaching for help.
Officials fear the death toll could climb once they can fully access remote villages like this one.
No help — food, water, medication — had reached the survivors here by Saturday other than what little residents in flip-flops could haul in by foot from the center of Teresopolis, slung over their shoulders in supermarket bags. Two avalanches wiped out the road leading to the Cascata do Imbui neighborhood, leaving in places only a cracked ribbon of asphalt perched over an abyss.
"This was a beautiful place. It was a happy place," Motta de Lima said. Like with many survivors, the enormity of the loss has not sunk in yet — and there hasn't been time yet to dwell on it. If he stops to think, he's not helping the rescue effort. And he has to help.
Motta de Lima came to find the body of four relatives presumed buried in the slide, including the grandmother who raised him. He wasn't counting on help from the government, but rescuers reached the bottom of the ravine by early afternoon. They moved a tree trunk and cleared the mud from the most visible body. One look at the familiar face, and he confirmed it was his uncle, Waldecir Correia de Lima, the first of his missing family members to be confirmed dead.
Four days after the disaster, official help is scarce, and residents are scrambling to take care of themselves — lugging water bottles, bags of groceries and blankets along miles of clay-covered rocks, rusting metal and trash.
The incessant rain makes everything dangerously slick, and stronger thunderstorms are expected Sunday. The smell of rot hangs heavy in the hot, humid air.
About 30 national defense, fire department and civil defense personnel were working Saturday on the hillside where the neighborhood of Campo Grande once stood. Police lingered at the bottom of the wash as soaked, muddy residents trudged by with provisions.
"Our function here today is to avoid looting," said Sgt. Luciano Comin.
Local and state fire departments said they had deployed 2,500 rescuers, while 225 federal policeman were in the area to maintain order. The federal government has been trying to fly helicopters to remote areas, but rain and low clouds have hampered that effort.
President Dilma Rousseff designated $60 million in aid for the state of Rio de Janeiro and the hardest-hit towns. The minister of national integration, Fernando Bezerra, said half that money would be in state and municipal accounts by Monday.
A seven-day period of mourning was declared in the state to honor the victims of the worst natural disaster to strike Brazil in four decades; the president called for three days of national mourning.
Some residents said they didn't expect much help from the government.
"It has been four days," said Osvaldo Siqueira da Silva, 55, who stopped to rest on a boulder while carrying water uphill. "The president has flown over, I saw on TV. Is it taking them this long to get organized?"
Others were sharper in the criticism.
"Where is the government? What are they doing? This is shameful," said Adriana Aguiar Pereira, 34, said as she carried milk cartons, candles, cookies and diapers to supply herself, her mother and her 1-year-old daughter.
Wanderson Ferreira de Carvalho, who lost 23 family members including his wife and 2-year-old son, spent Saturday hauling water and food five miles (eight kilometers) up and down steep jungle trails.
"We have to help those who are alive," he said. "There is no more help for those who are dead. I've cried a lot, and sometimes my mind goes blank and I almost forget what happened. But we have to do what we must to help the living."
After his father's body was found in an advanced state of decay, he added, he doesn't even want to find his son.
"He's with God," he said. "Whoever is buried, it's better to leave them in peace."
In the center of Teresopolis, hundreds of people left homeless were given shelter, food and medical care at a gymnasium. Bodies continued to be carried out of the hills for burial, overwhelming small town morgues.
Military personnel buried 50 unidentified bodies Saturday in Nova Friburgo after fingerprints, photos and genetic material were gathered for later identification, according to a statement from the city government.
The mudslides hit an area of nearly 900 square miles (2,330 square kilometers) in forested mountains just north of Rio, in an area that is home to both humble houses and weekend getaways for wealthy city dwellers.
The deaths were overwhelmingly in humbler areas, where houses are flimsier and built on steep hillsides known to be unstable.
Rio state's Civil Defense department reported that 263 people were killed in Teresopolis and 274 in Nova Friburgo. Fifty-five died in neighboring Petropolis and 18 in the town of Sumidouro.
Associated Press writers Stan Lehman and Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.