- Associated Press - Friday, January 14, 2011

TERESOPOLIS, Brazil (AP) — A new and ominous rain began falling again Friday in mountain towns where mudslides and flooding killed at least 509 people, hindering rescuers’ efforts to reach survivors even as relatives hauled the dead down the hills to freshly dug graves.

The known death toll rose overnight in three cities north of Rio, and officials feared that number could still rise, though they would not venture a guess of how many remain missing. Local reports put it in the hundreds.

It’s the worst natural disaster to hit Latin America’s biggest nation since flooding and slides in 1967 killed 785 people, according to the Brussels-based International Disaster Database, which has tracked deadly natural events in Brazil since 1900.

There were hundreds of rescuers in the area of Teresopolis and officials said the problem was getting them to remote areas isolated after roads were washed out. Despite the new rains, no more mudslides have been reported.

For those who did survive remains the grim task of burying loved ones.

As night fell Thursday on Teresopolis, barefoot volunteers dragged a generator and stadium lights into a cemetery, where nearly 200 freshly dug graves lay open like wounds in the red clay soil, waiting for the dead.

Funerals already had been held all day: a sister laying her brother to rest, a man burying his 1-year-old niece in a small white casket, a mother who cried her 9-year-old son’s name repeatedly as he was lowered into the earth.

Small, handmade white crosses identified only by numbers — the details would have to come later — dotted the desolate, sodden hilltop.

Dozens more funerals will come Friday and 300 more graves will be dug Saturday, said Vitor da Costa Soares, a city worker in charge of the cemetery.

“We’ll make room. We have to. We’ll stay up here until 10 p.m., midnight if we can, and we’ll be here at 6 a.m. tomorrow,” he said.

Heavy rains unleashed the mudslides before dawn Wednesday, burying people as they slept in this area about 40 miles north of Rio.

Survivors started digging for friends and relatives with their bare hands, kitchen utensils, whatever they could find as they waited for help in remote neighborhoods perched precariously on steep, washed-out hillsides.

In the remote Campo Grande neighborhood of Teresopolis, now accessible only by a perilous five-mile hike through mud-slicked jungle, family members pulled the lifeless bodies of loved ones from the muck. They carefully laid the corpses on dry ground, covering them with blankets.

A young boy cried out as his father’s body was found: “I want to see my dad! I want to see my dad!”

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.

Story Continues →