Brazilians still at risk

NOVA FRIBURGO - Brazilian army helicopters have stepped up rescue and supply operations in areas hit by floods and landslides that have killed at least 655 people, reaching residents who had been cut off from help for five days

One helicopter team rescued five people, the Air Force said as clearer weather conditions allowed the aircraft to more safely navigate the craggy terrain in the area north of Rio de Janeiro city.

Hundreds of people are believed to still be in areas at risk of fresh mud slides, some of them cut off from help by smashed roads and bridges while others refuse to leave for fear their houses will be looted.

The army is operating four helicopters from a makeshift base on the training ground for Brazil's national soccer team in Teresopolis.

Heavy rains last week sparked one of Brazil's worst natural disasters, sending an avalanche of mud, water and rocks plowing through towns and villages in the scenic region. Poorer residents who lived in precarious housing bore the brunt of the carnage.

The death toll has risen steadily as rescuers dig out more bodies from the wreckage. Authorities have given no estimates of the number of missing, but Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper said this week that 120 people are still unaccounted for.

Some residents have complained at what they say has been a slow response by authorities in getting basic supplies to isolated communities and helping people dig out dead relatives and friends.

"We want to leave. We have had no news, we don't know if our relatives died," Pedro Paulo da Silva, one of 40 residents in an isolated area, was quoted as saying by Folha de Sao Paulo after rescuers reached them at the weekend.

A fresh landslide on Sunday near the town of Petropolis killed three people, media reported, highlighting the risks posed by rain forecast for the region in the coming days.

In the capital Brasilia, the government sought to fend off criticism over its response by announcing that it would implement a national alert system to warn people in risky areas of approaching natural disasters.

The announcement came after the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper reported that Brazil had failed to meet a series of recommendations on improving disaster preparedness made by the United Nations in 2005.

Citing a letter sent by Brazil's Civil Defence agency to the UN last November, it said the government had not yet implemented recommendations such as setting up the alert system and investing sufficiently in infrastructure in risky areas.

"There is a culture of waiting for something to happen and then responding to it," head of the Civil Defence agency, Humberto Vianna, was quoted as saying.

Still, little criticism has been directed at Brazil's new president, Dilma Rousseff, despite her single, brief visit to the area last week and her decision to spend the weekend far from the devastated region.

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