By Gilles Trequesser
CARACAS, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Torrential rains and mudslides have killed at least 137 people in Venezuela's capital Caracas and along its scenic Caribbean coastline in the country's worst natural disaster in 50 years, authorities said Thursday.
The downpours created raging rivers that swept through poor districts in the city of six million people, destroying hundreds of ramshackle homes and turning tourist beaches into fields of thick mud strewn with tree trunks and boulders.
"At least 100 people are dead in Caracas, 100 are missing and 3,200 people are homeless," city governor Hernan Gruber said. The fatalities were in addition to at least 37 people confirmed dead Wednesday in the coastal state of Vargas.
"A tragedy of this magnitude has not occurred in Venezuela in 50 years," President Hugo Chavez said as he toured the disaster area in Vargas, just north of Caracas.
"The number of missing and dead have still not been determined," he said later in a live televised address.
Dressed in military fatigues, Chavez said dense clouds were "parked" over Caribbean coast, unleashing rains that caused normally tiny streams to overflow and turned streets into raging walls of water.
The rains, which were forecast to continue through the weekend, affected the entire coastline, from the tourist island of Margarita to the western Zulia state bordering Colombia.
Nationwide, over 35,000 people lost their homes. Another 14,500 people were evacuated when two dams burst.
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Worst hit were shanty towns perched precariously on steep mountainsides where one third of the capital's residents live.
"The Blandin neighborhood was practically destroyed. There are a lot of people trapped ... hundreds of people. The water swept away a complete neighborhood," said Luis Martinez, head of the metropolitan police motorized brigade.
Along the Vargas coastline, sections of a seaside road collapsed into the sea and aerial television footage showed all streets and beaches covered in mud.
Rescue efforts were being coordinated by the military, but officials appeared to have been overwhelmed at first by the magnitude and speed of the floods.
Torrents of brown water destroyed everything in their path as residents watched in awe and disbelief. Mangled car wrecks, some upside down, were piled against walls and street posts.
Streams of homeless trudged through the mud and along highways carrying what they could salvage. Witnesses spoke of whole settlements being washed away by the muddy flood waters.
"The mountain collapsed on us and there was water, water, just water. I lost 11 relatives," Blandina Mangaola said, in tears, at an emergency rescue center set up in a sports hall.
"Eleven members of my family disappeared under the house," said Joan Martinez, 19.
"When we were trying to help them, the hill crashed down on us. I tried to help my cousin who was screaming for help but electricity wires fell down and she was electrocuted."
With heavy rain still falling across Caracas Thursday night, some people refused to obey calls to leave their homes.
"I implore any Venezuelan living in a high risk area, don't wait until tomorrow ... saving lives is the most important thing," said Chavez, who blamed the chaotic urban planning of previous governments for allowing the shanty towns to develop.
All flights to the Simon Bolivar international airport, 30 miles (50 km) north of Caracas, were rerouted.
"The only flights authorized are for emergency purposes," airport director Arnaldo Certain said. He did not say when the airport might reopen.
The main highway linking Caracas to the airport, a vital trade artery between the capital and the coast, was reopened late Thursday.
Most other main roads into the city were flooded, virtually cutting it off from the rest of the country. A state of emergency was decreed in eight of Venezuela's 23 states.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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