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As rain eases, helicopters carry aid to desperate mudslide victims in Brazil

Brazilian soldiers tended to a mudslide victim in Nova Friburgo yesterday. The known death toll stood at 626 people, though officials fear it will rise as remote areas are finally reached. Brazilian soldiers tended to a mudslide victim in Nova Friburgo yesterday. The known death toll stood at 626 people, though officials fear it will rise as remote areas are finally reached. (Ricardo Moraes/ Reuters)
Associated Press / January 17, 2011

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TERESOPOLIS, Brazil — A break in near-constant rain yesterday allowed Brazilian rescue helicopters to deliver desperately needed food and water to some of the neighborhoods buried under tons of earth in mudslides that killed more than 600 people.

After the rain clouds lifted, about a dozen helicopters buzzed around the craggy peaks of the emerald-green mountains in this area about 40 miles north of Rio de Janeiro.

“The priority is the rescue of people who are still isolated. We have to take advantage of this break in the weather to help people in these remote, collapsed areas,’’ said Alexandre Aragon, head of the Brazilian National Security Force, which is aiding in the recovery.

The helicopters were not immediately being used to evacuate people from areas that are still at risk of more mudslides should rains return. Instead, they were concentrating on getting supplies to as many isolated areas as possible to keep people there alive.

The disaster hit in the early-morning hours Wednesday, when days of heavy rains unleashed tons of earth, rock, and raging torrents of water down steep mountainsides and directly into towns over an area of about 900 square miles.

The known death toll stood at 626 people yesterday. Officials fear it will rise sharply as the remote areas are reached and more bodies found.

Anderson Correia de Oliveira, the local police commander, said there would be no miracle rescues of people buried under the mudslides after four days, because they had no air pockets.

Desperate survivors have complained of receiving no help. Brazil’s government at all levels has come under criticism for the lack of speed in helping the victims.

But Oliveira and other officials said that reaching the most remote and desperate areas was impossible by helicopter until yesterday. The area hit by the slides is full of steep mountains with jagged peaks, making navigation challenging even in good weather, he said. With clouds that hovered well below the mountaintops for days, helicopters could not be used.

That has meant people have simply had to save themselves, mostly by hiking miles from their neighborhoods down to the center of Teresopolis to fetch supplies.

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