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Brazil Mudslide Survivors Carry Food, Water to Those in Remote Villages

Brazil Floods

Jan. 15: People walk among debris at a street after landslides in Nova Friburgo, Brazil. (AP)

Weary from days of steady rain, and bracing for severe thunderstorms predicted for Sunday, survivors of mudslides that have killed 611 in Brazil carried food, water and blankets to friends, neighbors and relatives still stranded in remote, stricken villages.

A slow stream of wet, muddy men and women, some in their bare feet, tied supermarket bags together and slung them over shoulders to carry basic provisions to those too frail to make the treacherous hike down to the city Saturday.

Promised government help was scarce; 11 helicopters sent to airlift those in need had difficulty flying through the low clouds and steady rain, and many of the police and national guard were occupied with keeping order, not delivering aid.

No help — food, water, medication — had reached the survivors in cut-off communities like Cascata do Imbui by Saturday other than the little residents could haul. Two avalanches wiped out the road, leaving in places only a cracked ribbon of asphalt perched over an abyss.

"This was a beautiful place. It was a happy place," Renato Motta de Lima said. Like many survivors, his emotions are muted. The loss is too great — Motta de Lima can't stop to think. If he thinks, he can't help. And he has to help.

He came to find the body of the grandmother who raised him. He wasn't counting on support from the government, but rescuers reached the bottom of the ravine by early afternoon. They moved the tree trunk and cleared the mud from the most visible body. One look at the familiar face and Motta de Lima confirmed: his uncle, Waldecir Correia de Lima.

Four relatives dead. One located, three to go. Motta de Lima is one of the lucky ones.

Four days after the disaster struck, official help is scarce, and residents are scrambling to rescue themselves — lugging water bottles, bags of groceries and blankets along miles of slippery, clay-covered rocks, rusting metal, trash.

The incessant rain makes everything dangerously slick. 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 — just keeping an eye on things, they explained.

Three national defense officers, their weapons slung across their chests, stood in clean uniforms as dirty, wet residents hiked by, carrying 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 in 11 helicopters to remote areas, but has found it difficult because of the rain and low clouds.

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 the money would be in state and municipal accounts by Monday — six days after the disaster struck.

The state has decreed a seven-day mourning period to remember the victims of the worst natural disaster to strike Brazil in four decades; the president called for three days of national mourning.

Many residents seemed resigned to getting little real help; many said they didn't expect much from the government.

Osvaldo Siqueira da Silva, 55, stopped to rest on a boulder. He was carrying five one-liter bottles of water to friends up the hill.

"It has been four days," he said. "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, as she carried milk cartons, candles, cookies and diapers in grocery bags to feed herself, her mother and her year-old daughter, who were still in the cut-off neighborhood of Campo Grande.

Wanderson Ferreira de Carvalho lost 23 family members — including his wife and 2-year-old son — in the massive mudslides, yet spent Saturday hauling water and food up steep jungle trails. Emotionally numb, physically exhausted, he knew nobody else was going to help.

"We have to help those who are alive," he said as he hauled supplies five miles (eight kilometers) up the dangerous trail. "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."

This many days later, after his father was found in an advanced state of decay, 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 homeless are sheltered in a local gymnasium in the town, where food and medical care are abundant.

As bodies are carried out of the hills, they're laid to rest — by relatives, or by the state. Small town morgues are completely overwhelmed by bodies.

On Saturday, 50 unidentified corpses were laid in graves by the military in Nova Friburgo. Fingerprints, photos, and genetic material were gathered so the dead could be identified later, according to a statement by Nova Friburgo city official Hedel Nara Ramos.

The mudslides hit an area of nearly 900 square miles (2,330 square kilometers) in lush, forested mountains about 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of Rio. The deaths are centered in Teresopolis and three other towns, where many wealthier citizens of Rio maintain weekend homes.

While the disaster has destroyed the homes of rich and poor alike, the deaths are overwhelmingly seen in humbler areas, where homes are flimsier, most lacking foundations, and located in steep areas known to be at high risk of mudslides.

Rio state's Civil Defense department said on its website Saturday that 263 people were killed in Teresopolis and 274 in Nova Friburgo, a 45-mile (75-kilometer) drive to the west that draws hikers and campers to mountain trails, waterfalls and dramatic views of lush green slopes. Fifty-five died in neighboring Petropolis and 19 in the town of Sumidouro.

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Associated Press writers Stan Lehman and Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.