[GALLERY id=4326 cat=world]

Brazil's army is sending 700 soldiers to help throw a lifeline to desperate neighbourhoods devastated by a string of mudslides that killed at least 642 people in areas north of Rio de Janeiro.

Troops have already set up at least one bridge in the mountain city of Teresopolis, officials said. But at least 10 main highways remain blocked in the rugged area north of Rio where the slides hit, hampering efforts to move in the heavy machinery needed to begin massive cleanup efforts and eventually dig out bodies stuck under tonnes of mud and debris.


Five-year-old Ludmila Moura sits on a mattress at a shelter for people displaced by landslides in Nova Friburgo, Brazil, on Sunday. ((Felipe Dana/Associated Press))

The troops plan to set up mobile bridges that can span 60 metres and are robust enough to support the hundreds of pieces of big equipment needed in cleanup and recovery efforts.

Days of heavy rains unleashed earth, rock and raging torrents of water down steep, forested mountainsides Wednesday, directly into towns that are weekend getaways for the Rio area.

Rescuers had yet to reach about 20 neighbourhoods, though a break in rains and better visibility allowed about 12 helicopters to begin taking supplies and firefighters in, while shuttling injured survivors out.

But pilots said flying was still treacherous in the area full of jagged mountain peaks, where there are few safe landing zones and power lines are draped between peaks through seemingly clear space.


Floods and mudslides destroyed neighbourhoods in Teresopolis last week. ((CBC))

"These are the most challenging conditions I've flown in," said Adalberto Ortale, a helicopter pilot for Ibama, the enforcement branch of the Environment Ministry. "The majority of people doing the flying are not from here and you have to orient yourself on the fly."

In downtown Teresopolis, frustration and hopelessness was building. Hundreds of survivors remained uncertain of how they were going to be able to leave crowded shelters and restart their lives.

Eunice Peixoto de Souza, 57, said she was thankful for the shelter and the hot lunches served at the Teresopolis gymnasium, where she has been staying for five days with three of her children and three grandchildren.

But she has nowhere else to go, and the prospect of spending another week, or weeks, on the thin foam mattresses laid on the floor is hard to bear.

"We lost everything, and we can't pay rent," she said. "I want a place that will let the family stay together, but I haven't heard any word from the government yet."

One of her sons is still living in his home in a high-risk area. Peixoto de Souza wants him to leave, but knows he won't want to bring his children to the cramped gym.


Under pouring rain, a man wearing a mask to prevent infections stands in front of coffins during a mass funeral for landslide victims at a cemetery in Nova Friburgo, Brazil, on Saturday. ((Felipe Dana/Associated Press))

"What can I tell him? Take them to live under a bridge?" she asked, upset. "We're waiting for some word from the government. I am certain that God will provide."

In Teresopolis, mayors from three hard-hit cities planned to begin co-ordinating reconstruction efforts, which have been estimated at $1.2 billion.

At least 5,000 new homes must be built for those who lost everything. Roads, bridges and commercial buildings need to be repaired or razed and replaced.

Mayor Jorge Mario Sedlacek of Teresopolis said more than 2,000 tents were being brought in, each capable of sheltering up to 10 people. Teresopolis has more than 3,000 people who were made homeless by the slides.

Rio state's Civil Defence Department said on its website Monday that the death toll reached 642 between the cities of Teresopolis, Nova Friburgo, Petropolis and Sumidouro.