CARACAS, Dec 17 (Reuters) - Hundreds of people swept away by raging rivers and mudslides were still missing on Friday in Venezuela's capital Caracas and along its scenic Caribbean coastline in the country's worst natural disaster in 50 years.
At least 140 people were killed, most of them buried alive under mud on Wednesday and Thursday, but authorities feared the eventual death toll could be much higher.
The downpours turned roads into rivers of mud that were sent crashing down mountain slopes through poor districts in the sprawling city of 6 million people, destroying hundreds of ramshackle homes and turning tourist beaches into desolate fields of thick mud strewn with tree trunks and boulders.
"The number of missing and dead has still not been determined," President Hugo Chavez said in a live televised address late on Thursday before touring the capital's disaster areas during the night.
Nationwide, more than 35,000 residents lost their homes. Another 14,500 people were evacuated when two dams burst.
In Caracas, 100 people died, 260 were missing and more than 3,000 made homeless, city governor Hernan Gruber said on Friday.
The worst-hit area was along a thin coastal stretch of the state of Vargas, just north of the capital on the other side of the Avila mountain overlooking the city.
"A tragedy of this magnitude has not occurred in Venezuelain 50 years," Chavez said on Thursday as he toured the Vargas region.
INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT STILL CLOSED
"We dare not predict how many people died," Antonio Marquez, director of the state governorship, told Reuters.
Speaking from the seaside state capital of La Guaira, 35 miles (50 km) north of Caracas, he said 40 bodies were taken to the local morgue. About 90 percent of the state's 350,000 residents were hit by the flash floods, he said.
Sections of a seaside road collapsed
into the sea and all streets, beaches and elegant marinas were covered
Meteorologists said six times the normal rainfall of December's average fell in recent days in and around Caracas.
Dense clouds, which Chavez said were "parked" over the central Caribbean coast, started to move slowly westward, meteorologists said, bringing relief to thousands of homeless.
All flights to Simon Bolivar international airport, near La Guaira, were still suspended. La Guaira port, which handles one third of all trade in Venezuela, was closed too.
"All commercial flights are suspended. We are only handling emergency flights," airport director Arnaldo Certain said. The airport was not expected to reopen until Saturday, he said.
Shanty towns perched precariously on steep mountainsides around Caracas, and where one third of its residents live, succumbed to the fury of torrents of brown mud gushing through and destroying everything in their path.
CHAVEZ'S SUPPORTERS HARDEST HIT
In Plan de Manzano, one of those settlements practically obliterated by the landslides, residents on Friday were picking through the ruins of their homes to salvage what they could.
Reuters reporter Paul Hughes, who reached the area on foot, said what was once the road to La Guaira was now a messy sea of rubble, boulders, house appliances, cars overturned or stuck in the mud.
Luis Anguro, a 35-year-old driver, said he and his family escaped just when the swollen stream tore away the front of their house.
"We survive miraculously. Normally, there is little water in this creek but the other night a big wave crashed down, water, rocks, mud, it swept everything away," he said, as he looked disconsolately at his Jeep stuck deep in the mud.
Chavez, who was dressed in camouflage military fatigues for the first time in a national televised address, urged people refusing to obey calls to leave their homes to comply.
"I implore any Venezuelan living in a high risk area, don't wait until tomorrow ... saving lives is the most important thing," he said, blaming the chaotic urban planning of previous governments for allowing the shanty towns to develop.
The flash floods coincided with an unprecedented referendum on a new Venezuelan constitution, the flagship of Chavez's reformist political project.
The new charter was overwhelmingly approved by 71 percent of voters on Wednesday, in particular by the millions of poor who were the worst hit by the mudslides.
They have enthusiastically backed Chavez's populist anti-establishment stance and promises of social justice since he took office 10 months ago.
Chavez's critics argue that the former coup leader intends to establish an autocratic regime and that the new charter is a blueprint for him to impose "a constitutional dictatorship."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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