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Grieving mudslide survivors in Brazil pleaded for food and water Friday as the death toll in one of the country's deadliest catastrophes on record rose to at least 537people.

The day also brought a new and ominous rainfall in mountain towns north of Rio de Janeiro, hindering efforts to reach survivors even as relatives hauled the dead down the hills to freshly dug graves.

Officials would not guess how many remain missing. Local reports put it in the hundreds.

While hundreds of rescuers were in the area, 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.

TRAGEDY IN TERESOPOLIS

More than 225 people have died in Teresopolis alone, freelance reporter Tom Phillips told CBC News.

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"This morning I visited the town cemetery, which has been turned into a mass grave," Phillips said Friday from Teresopolis.

"They’re holding two-minute funerals for the people as the bodies keep rolling in. Flood lights are put up because they’re burying through the night," he said.

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.

Phillips visited a hard-hit shantytown on the outskirts of Teresopolis on Thursday. He said the town was built on a vulnerable hillside because many of the residents had nowhere else to go.

"When the dam burst above that because of the rain, a huge number of rocks just cascaded down onto this community," he said.

Phillips said there was at least one story of hope from a nearby town: a six-month-old boy was pulled from the rubble after being trapped with his father. The boy's father also survived, Phillips said.

-With files from The Associated Press

Heavy rains unleashed the mudslides before dawn Wednesday, burying people as they slept in this area about 65 kilometres north of Rio.

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

In the remote Campo Grande neighbourhood of Teresopolis, now accessible only by a perilous eight-kilometre 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.

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.

"I have friends still lost in all of this mud," said Carlos Eurico, a resident of Campo Grande, as he motioned to a sea of destruction behind him. "It's all gone. It's all over now. We're putting ourselves in the hands of God.

The hundreds of homes washed away in the neighborhood were turned inside out, their plumbing and electrical wires exposed. Children's clothes littered the earth, cars were tossed upside down into thickets.

Conceicao Salomao, a doctor co-ordinating relief efforts at a makeshift refuge inside a gymnasium in central Teresopolis, said about 750 people were staying there Thursday and about 1,000 people had sought treatment in the past day. One danger she worried about was leptospirosis, a waterborne bacterial disease.

"The hospitals around here are overflowing. The army and navy are setting up field hospitals to help," she said.

Rio state's Civil Defence Department said on its website that 222 people were killed in Teresopolis, 216 in nearby Nova Friburgo and 41 in neighbouring Petropolis. It said about 14,000 people had been driven from their homes.

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A young woman sits in a shelter for people displaced by landslides in Teresopolis on Thursday. ((Felipe Dana/Associated Press))

An additional 37 people had died in floods and mudslides since Christmas in other parts of southeastern Brazil — 16 in Minas Gerais state north of Rio and 21 in Sao Paulo state.

Just a few rescuers managed to hike to Caleme on Thursday and they had only shovels and machetes — not the heavier equipment needed to hunt for survivors. Residents said they had no food, water or medication, and many made the long walk for help to the centre of Teresopolis.

Morgues in the cities were full and bodies covered in blankets were laid in streets.

Officials said the area hit by slides had seen roughly 26 centimetres of rain in less than 24 hours. More rain is forecast through the weekend.