Brazil rescuers find flood victims trapped for days
By Rodriguo Viga Gaier and Sergio Queiroz, Reuters, Jan 17 2011
NOVA FRIBURGO, Brazil (Reuters)—Brazilian army helicopters stepped up rescue and supply operations on Monday in areas hit by floods and landslides that have killed at least 665 people, reaching residents who had been cut off from help for five days.
One helicopter team rescued five people in the morning, the Air Force said in a statement, as clearer weather allowed the aircraft to navigate more safely around the craggy terrain north of Rio de Janeiro city.
Hundreds of people are believed to still be in areas at risk of fresh mudslides, some of them cut off from help by smashed roads and bridges while others refuse to leave for fear their houses will be raided by looters. The army is operating four helicopters from a makeshift base on the training ground for Brazil’s national soccer team in the town of Teresopolis.
"It’s impossible to calculate how many people are still buried," Vice Governor of Rio de Janeiro Luis Fernando Pezao told Reuters. "Our numbers are based on the coroner and the fire department but there are a lot of people still buried."
Heavy rains last week sparked one of Brazil’s worst natural disasters, sending an avalanche of mud, water and rocks plowing through towns and villages in the scenic region. Poorer residents who lived in precarious housing bore the brunt of the carnage.
The death toll has risen steadily as rescuers have dug bodies from the wreckage. Authorities have given no estimates of the number of missing, but Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper said on Monday that 120 people are unaccounted for.
Some residents have complained over what they say has been a slow response by authorities in getting basic supplies to isolated communities and helping people dig out dead relatives and friends.
A fresh landslide on Sunday near the town of Petropolis killed three people, media reported, highlighting the risks posed by rain forecast for the region in the coming days.
In the capital Brasilia, the government sought to fend off criticism over its response by announcing that it would implement a national alert system to warn people in risky areas of approaching natural disasters.
The announcement came after the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper reported that Brazil had failed to meet a series of recommendations on improving disaster preparedness made by the United Nations in 2005.
Citing a letter sent by Brazil’s Civil Defense agency to the United Nations last November, it said the government had not yet implemented recommendations such as setting up the alert system and investing sufficiently in infrastructure in risky areas.
"There is a culture in Brazil of waiting for something to happen and then responding to it," the head of the Civil Defense agency, Humberto Vianna, was quoted as saying.