TERESOPOLIS, Brazil — Grieving mudslide survivors carried the bodies of loved ones for hours down washed-out mountainsides on Friday as the death toll hit 514. They told of entire neighbourhoods in a resort city destroyed and pleaded for food and water to reach those still isolated by Brazil’s deadliest natural disaster in four decades.
Officials said the death toll in four towns north of Rio de Janeiro was still rising and could jump further once rescuers can reach areas cut off by Wednesday’s slides. They refused to even guess how many remain missing. Local reports put it in the hundreds.
Fernando Perfista, a 31-year-old ranch hand, walked with friends for hours through the night, carrying the body of his 12-year-old boy, the only of his four children he had found.
In the Fazenda Alpina area where he lives, Perfista said uncovered bodies still lay on the ground and the injured left to suffer on their own because no relief had yet reached them.
He said he found his son’s body buried in the mud and had to put it in a refrigerator to keep it from dogs while he went out to search without success for his other three children.
Friends helped Perfista haul the boy’s body to town, where they buried him Friday. Like the scores of other survivors standing outside a morgue in Teresopolis, he was dazed with the shock of sudden loss.
“My children are in there, in that river bank, under that mud,” he said blankly, a hand held to his face.
After morning rains caused delays Friday, rescuers resumed efforts, but manpower or resources had yet to reach many in Teresopolis, a mountain city of 163,000 alongside a national park that hosts a major training site for Brazil’s national football team.
It holds ornate weekend homes where the wealthy of Rio escape the summer heat to enjoy horseback riding and rock climbing, as well as brick or wood houses built by the poor on denuded land.
The avalanche of mud and water swept away trees and sent boulders larger than cars rumbling down the slopes, destroying everything in their paths, striking rich and poor alike — though most of the toll appears to have fallen, as usual, on the poor.
It is the worst natural disaster to hit Latin America’s biggest nation since flooding and slides in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo states killed 785 people in 1967, according to the Brussels-based International Disaster Database, which has records of deadly natural events in Brazil since 1900.
Amauri Souza, a 38-year-old who helped Perfista hike his son’s body to town, said a few helicopters are reaching remote areas, but “they’re only taking down the wounded.”
He said they were not dropping off food, water or body bags, and he came to town to plead for help.
Souza said he pulled his wife and 6-month-old daughter to safety when the wall of mud and water hit early Wednesday. But his wife’s parents were lost. He heard their screams for help as they were caught up in the mud. Their bodies has yet to be found.
“It’s a scene of war and total loss,” he said of the Fazenda Alpina area. “I heard my friends screaming for help in the night.”
Now, after the initial disaster, he fears another from hunger, thirst and disease, if officials do not act.
“The water is rotten, but people are forced to drink it. There is no food. I had meat in my house, but it’s all gone bad.”
Despite the number of deaths, the relatively low number of injured has surprised officials.
Carlos Eduardo Coelho, in charge of the Rio state’s health services effort in Teresopolis, said hospitals have ample space. He said that on Thursday, 185 people were treated for injuries in two city hospitals, while 20 people sought treatment in a military field hospital.
He said the injuries are not that severe — mostly cuts and broken bones — but that he was worried about the health risks to come as even the survivors were “buried in contaminated water” and even people with minor cuts are developing infections.
Flooding and mudslides are common in Brazil when the summer rains come, but this week’s slides were among the worst in recent memory. The disasters punish the poor, who often live in rickety shacks perched perilously on steep hillsides with little or no foundations. But even the rich did not escape the damage in Teresopolis, where large homes were washed away.
Rio state’s Civil Defence department said on its website that 227 people were killed in Teresopolis and 230 in Nova Friburgo, a 45-mile (75-kilometre) drive to the west of Teresopolis that draws hikers and campers to mountain trails, waterfalls and dramatic views of lush green slopes.
Another 41 died in neighbouring Petropolis and 16 in the town of Sumidouro. The Civil Defence agency said about 14,000 people had been driven from their homes.
An additional 37 people had died in floods and mudslides since Christmas in other parts of southeastern Brazil — 16 in Minas Gerais state north of Rio and 21 in Sao Paulo state.