The death toll from massive mudslides in mountain towns north of Rio de Janerio, Brazil, had risen to 598 by Saturday, and there were fears it would climb sharply higher once remote areas were reached.

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 poor weather conditions.


Rescue workers try to recover the body of a landslide victim in Nova Friburgo, Brazil, ((Felipe Dana/Associated Press))

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 bags 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, triggered by torrential rains, hit an area of nearly 2,330 square kilometres in lush, forested mountains about 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.

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.

Rio state's Civil Defence department said on its website Saturday that 260 people were killed in Teresopolis and 267 in Nova Friburgo, a 75-kilometre drive to the west that draws hikers and campers to mountain trails, waterfalls and dramatic views of lush green slopes.

Fifty-three died in neighbouring Petropolis and 18 in the town of Sumidouro.