Thousands of traumatized mudslide survivors navigated steep, slippery jungle paths Saturday to find food, water and medicine as they slowly gave up hope that government rescuers would reach them quickly enough in remote mountain villages.

Those who escaped unharmed from the slides that killed 591 people over four days ferried bottles of water and sacks of groceries on their backs after trekking five miles (eight kilometres) to the centre of the mountain town of Teresopolis, north of Rio.

Wanderson Ferreira de Carvalho, 27, lost 23 members of his family, including his father, his wife and 2-year-old son. He said that his father’s body was so decomposed by the water and the heat that he no longer wanted anyone to look for those of his spouse and child.

“I would rather not see him now,” Carvalho said of his son. “Whoever is buried, it’s better to leave them in peace.”

Carvalho trudged numbly up a path to his neighbourhood, carrying supplies for his neighbours who survived.

“We have to help those who are alive,” he said. “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.”

While Carvalho and others are angry at the lack of government help, they also seem oddly resigned, as if having to save themselves after Brazil’s worst natural disaster in four decades were not unusual.

At the base of the steep hills leading up to Carvalho’s Campo Grande neighbourhood, only a few fire-fighters and two federal policemen were seen -- and they were not helping people carry supplies.

Local and state fire departments said they had deployed 2,500 rescuers, while 225 federal policemen 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 poor weather conditions.

Simone dos Santos Pinto, a 36-year-old resident of the Campo Grande neighbourhood who was hiking supplies up to her sick, 65-year-old father, said there was no help, and she could not understand why.

“There is nothing,” she said, plastic grocery backs strapped across her shoulders and in her hands. “I’m leaving my father up there and my house is about to collapse. But what am I going to do?”

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

In the centre of Teresopolis, hundreds of homeless are sheltered in a local gymnasium in the town, where food and medical care are abundant.

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.

In those areas, horror stories are trickling out as survivors make it to town.

Fernando Perfista dug out the body of his eldest child from the mud, then looked for the 12-year-old’s three missing siblings. He sheltered the boy’s remains in a refrigerator to keep scavenging dogs at bay while he searched.

After failing to find his other children in the Fazenda Alpina area of Teresopolis, the 31-year-old ranch hand built a gurney from scrap wood, carried his son’s body down a mudslide-wrecked slope before dawn Friday and buried him in a homemade coffin.

Then Perfista waited with a crowd in the rain outside the Teresopolis morgue for a chance to plead with officials to help him continue his search. He clutched plastic-covered pictures of his three other children- a chubby 1-year-old and two smiling girls, ages 6 and 10.

“My children are in there, in that river bank, under that mud,” he said blankly.

Amauri Souza, a 38-year-old who helped Perfista carry his son’s body, said a few helicopters had reached isolated areas, but “they’re only taking down the wounded.” He said officials were not dropping off body bags or food or water, adding that he feared the consequences if aid did not arrive soon.

“The water is rotten, but people are forced to drink it. There is no food. I had meat in my house, but it’s all gone bad,” Souza said.

He said he pulled his wife and 6-month-old daughter onto higher ground just as a churning mass of water, mud and rocks hit early Wednesday. But his wife’s parents were lost -- he heard their screams for help as they washed away. Their bodies hadn’t been found by Friday.

“It’s a scene of war and total loss,” said Souza.

Officials fear the death toll could rise once remote areas are reached. Authorities did not offer an estimate on the missing, but local reports put it in the hundreds.

Rio state’s Civil Defence department said on its website Saturday that 257 people were killed in Teresopolis and 267 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. Forty-nine died in neighbouring Petropolis and 18 in the town of Sumidouro.

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