Brazil slide rescues slowed, focus on housing

Efforts to fly rescue helicopters to hundreds of people stranded by massive mudslides were slowed by renewed rains in a region north of Rio de Janeiro, as the death toll rose to 633 in a disaster that has left thousands more homeless.

With rainy skies and low visibility in an area full of craggy, steep peaks, officials focused their attention on the survivors they could reach more immediately, mapping out a plan to get people living in tents in the short term, and into safe, affordable housing in the coming months.

Mayor Jorge Mario Sedlacek of Teresopolis, one of the hardest-hit cities, said Sunday that more than 2,000 tents were being brought in, each capable of sheltering up to 10 people. Teresopolis has more than 3,000 people who were made homeless by the slides.

"They will give families shelter for up to six months while more permanent solutions can be developed," Sedlacek said. "These tents will at least re-establish the family units, which will bring some comfort to people living in communal shelters."

That could come as good news to people like Magda Brito Silveira, who said she was near her breaking point trying to run her family of six children after five chaotic days in a crowded gymnasium-turned-shelter.

"We have nowhere else to go, no resources," she said. "I am trying to keep the children clean, to feed them, to make sure we're all together. But I can't hold on like this much longer."

A local business has offered land on which to set up the tents, and crews began working to level the ground, Sedlacek said. The city is also studying the option of erecting modular homes, which can be set up within a few days.

Even before the disaster struck, the city had requested federal funds to build affordable, safe housing, in a region notably lacking in both.

More than $72 million has since been approved for Teresopolis and will be used to build homes and shore up areas at risk for more slides, the mayor said. Two other towns hit by the disaster also won federal funding: $13 million for Petropolis, and $5 million for Nova Friburgo.

The federal government also offered to pay the rent of 2,500 families for an indeterminate period. Sign-ups for the program started Sunday, said Gen. Jose Elito, minister for national security.

"We are removing bureaucratic bottlenecks and registering people to help them with long-term housing needs," Elito said.

Authorities also will map out and evacuate high-risk areas where residents are holding on to their homes, said Sedlacek, the mayor.

"We know there are communities that are at immediate risk. The government is planning to remove those residents and place them in shelters or tents," he said.

Days after mudslides wiped out whole neighborhoods early Wednesday, many residents continued to live in homes in threatened areas, unwilling to join the thousands crowded into shelters despite the ever-present danger to their lives.

Rali Oliveira da Silva, 35, spent several years building a home for his family in Cascata do Imbui, saving little by little for the cement, the bricks, the paint. The house was still standing Sunday, but its cement patio now hung precariously over a yawning precipice, the empty space left by a slide that killed most of his downhill neighbors.

Oliveira da Silva's home could be next. But he said he has no money to rent another place, much less buy land elsewhere and start over, so he's staying put for now.

"There is no financing for someone like me, and I can't afford to buy a home in town," he said. "What am I supposed to do? Move my family to a shelter? And then what?"

On Sunday, municipal, state and federal officials set up a center to register missing persons; began distributing 35,000 free cell phones donated by a telecommunications company; and announced immediate plans to relocate some 2,500 people housed at the Teresopolis gym to 18 smaller, better organized shelters at churches, warehouses and other spaces.

A brief morning lull in the downpours allowed rescue helicopters to buzz around the emerald-green peaks in this area about 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of Rio de Janeiro, delivering desperately needed food and water to some of the most remote neighborhoods.

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

Rio state's Civil Defense department said on its website late Sunday that the death toll reached 633 between the cities of Teresopolis, Nova Friburgo, Petropolis and Sumidouro.

The death toll has risen daily as more bodies are pulled from the mud.