NOVA FRIBURGO, Brazil (Reuters) - Rains that devastated a mountainous region north of Rio de Janeiro have killed at least 626 people, Brazil’s Civil Defense agency said on Sunday, as fears of more storms and disease outbreaks overshadowed rescue operations.
Nearly five days after rains sparked floods and massive landslides in one of Brazil’s worst natural disasters, the death toll continues to rise steadily as rescuers dig up corpses buried by rivers of mud and reach more remote areas.
TV images showed rescue workers looking for people under mounds of debris, a task made difficult by more rain since Saturday.
The government has made available 586 military personnel for rescue operations, 8,000 food baskets and 7 metric tons of medicine and other supplies, it said in a statement.
O Globo newspaper said the army has helped with the rescue of 110 families in isolated areas in Teresopolis, where 268 people have died, but people affected by the floods increasingly complain about what they see as a lack of government help in distributing basic goods and finding bodies.
While donations of food, water and clothing are pouring in from around the country, many people in remote areas lacked basic supplies.
“The water started to cover the stairs and we placed some of the things over others, but it was impossible (to save anything) with the power of the water. Everything collapsed and we only had time to save ourselves,” said 49-year-old Maria de Lourdes, who is unemployed. “Everything I owned, I lost.”
The extent of the damage has posed a challenge for Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s new president, and exposed major flaws in emergency planning and disaster prevention in a country that aspires to attain developed-nation status in coming years.
Rousseff visited the region on Thursday and pledged a swift relief effort, but that has yet to materialize in some of the hardest-hit areas. Anger from survivors so far has been directed mostly at state and local authorities. The federal government has earmarked 780 million reais ($463.5 million) in emergency aid and Rousseff declared three days of mourning.
State health authorities have warned the population about diseases that could be contracted by drinking or other contact with contaminated rain water. The Civil Defense agency has also distributed vaccines against tetanus and diphtheria, according to its website.
Writing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa; editing by Stuart Grudgings and Mohammad Zargham