Dateline ACT Venezuela 1/00: Lives saved in Caracas slum

By Paul Jeffrey
Caracas, Venezuela, January 18, 2000

If there's a sign of hope in mud-covered Venezuela, it can be found in the steep ravine where the Catuche River flows into the center of Caracas.

When days of rain provoked flooding the night of December 15, the Catuche, like similar rivers along the northern coast of Venezuela, rose rapidly to levels unseen in decades, wiping out hundreds of homes with an unstoppable torrent of water, mud, rocks, and tree trunks. Yet unlike other Caracas neighborhoods assaulted by the floodwaters, Catuche's unique history gave its residents a fighting chance to survive the worst disaster to hit this country in over a century.

"The organization of the neighborhood and the solidarity of the people saved hundreds of lives in Catuche," says Manuel Larreal, director of Ecumenical Action-ACT, one of five Venezuelan church-related groups that have joined together in ACT-Venezuela. The group's new office, which opens this week, is located just two blocks from the Catuche River in a building used by Ecumenical Action-ACT to dispense emergency assistance and psychological care.

No one knows for sure, but perhaps as few as 15 people died in Catuche, a very small figure compared to other similar neighborhoods where hundreds lost their lives. Estimates for the death toll nationwide range from 15,000 to 50,000.

The history of what made Catuche different begins in 1992 when Jesuit seminarians living in the neighborhood started organizing local residents in an effort to clean up the Catuche River, where unplanned development had allowed hundreds of families arriving from the countryside to build houses right up to the edge of the river and in some cases directly on top of the river, leaving just a small tunnel underneath for the passage of the water. With many houses dumping raw sewage directly into the river which is just a small trickle most of the year, the ravine became an unsightly and unhealthy place, and engineers warned that serious floods would violently rip through houses in the ravine.

What the seminarians started soon blossomed into a neighborhood-wide organization that brought together church groups, city government, local builders and international funders in a partnership designed to improve the quality of life along the Catuche River. Sewage pipes were installed and families slowly began to be relocated out of the ravine. Residents dreamed of a river where fish and frogs and birds would one day return.

As the neighborhood organization begin to make change along the river, residents utilized the same structures to resolve other neighborhood crises. The community banned the construction of new highrises that were destroying neighborhoods in other parts of this crowded city of six million people. When teenage gangs sprang up on the streets of Catuche, community leaders negotiated a truce with the youth, declaring certain parts of the neighborhood as drug-free zones and prohibiting thefts within the neighborhood. Several gang members were given jobs in neighborhood construction projects, "wearing them out so much in the daytime that they had no energy left to make trouble at night," said Lisbeth Mora, coordinator of social ministries along the ravine for the local Catholic parish.

Two years ago, 36 families moved out of shacks above the river and into church-sponsored four-story apartment complexes overlooking the ravine. They were the first of hundreds of families that community leaders hoped to voluntarily relocate over coming years. Then came the December flood, and within minutes many of those families lost their homes.

"We had a 15-year plan to heal and recover the river," Larreal said. "Now we've got to do all that work in the next 18 months."

Although they face staggering challenges in the months ahead, community leaders in Catuche are markedly more hopeful than their counterparts in other affected areas of Venezuela. "We lost our homes and personal possessions, but the organization remains," said Liliana Padilla, a researcher at a Jesuit center in the neighborhood. "That gives us hope at a time when hope is in short supply."

Larreal pointed out several ways that the community's high level of organization helped in the middle of the crisis. He said neighbors who knew each other and had worked together for years communicated swiftly the news of the rising water. Larreal said older residents were helped from their homes by younger neighbors. When a few were reluctant to leave because they didn't believe the threat or because they were afraid their few possessions could be stolen, Larreal said neighbors broke down doors and carried people forcibly to safety.

Larreal recalled one incident where he and some other men were trying unsuccessfully to kick down the heavy door of a woman who refused to leave her house. He said a young gang member came along, pulled out a pistol and fired into the lock, allowing the door to be opened. The gang member then pointed his gun at the woman and ordered her out of her house. Seconds after she left the dwelling, Larreal said, the house fell into the raging current.

"It wasn't a very orthodox way to rescue someone, but it's a sign of the cooperation we've achieved in the neighborhood," Mora observed.

Once survivors had been pulled from harm's way, often with nothing but the clothes on their back, they were housed in neighborhood schools, churches, and private homes. "People all through the neighborhood opened their doors to those who lost their homes," Larreal said. "Those families didn't lack food, clothing, or shelter. It wasn't the government that provided the assistance, but their neighbors."

More than 5,000 people living along the Catuche were left homeless. Three days after the flooding, the government offered them shelter in schools, military bases, and other large public buildings throughout the city and in neighboring states. There they were given emergency supplies and encouraged to relocate to underpopulated sections in the interior of the country.

Yet Larreal said most have filtered back to the neighborhood and are living with relatives or friends or sharing rented apartments, preferring to take their chances in the devastated but organized community that's their home rather than to begin life anew somewhere else.

According to William Manrrique, coordinator of a local center of the Catholic organization Faith & Joy, some 600 people have moved back into houses that barely survived the floods but are considered at high risk should the river rise again. He said the families are being interviewed by organizations working in the community that are cooperating in a socio-economic study to be completed by the end of February. Manrrique said the study will provide a foundation for making long-term decisions about rebuilding homes in the area around Catuche.

According to Larreal, the disaster taught the community it has to coexist peacefully with the river. "Over the years, people forced by poverty to live in the ravine stole from the river a place to flow," Larreal said. "What happened in December was inevitable. The river has taken back its traditional course, and we've got to learn to respect that."

Ecumenical Action/ACT is providing assistance for three months to 2,865 persons in Catuche. Other national ACT partners, including the Presbyterian Church of Venezuela, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Venezuela, the Venezuelan Pentecostal Evangelical Union, and the Popular Education Center, are together assisting another 2,135 persons in Caracas and other communities in the north of the country.

Paul Jeffrey is visiting Venezuela as the ACT-Church World Service Press Officer.