Venezuela

Mudslide survivors tell stories of loss, horror, hope

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CARACAS, Venezuela -- Forty-three year old Dania Milano and her family stayed awake for three nights straight, afraid that their house would be the next to be buried by the giant mudslides that kept crashing down the mountains. Finally, the family heard the tumultuous rush of cascading mud and debris approaching their house. Milano and her sister gathered their children and ran outside and down the hill to safety. When they turned around they watched a wall of mud split their home in two.
"The mountain came down and the walls of our house broke. We lost everything. The house opened in two parts," said Milano, sitting on a stack of garbage bags filled with donated clothes. The family had watched in terror as their neighbors' homes were lifted on top of the wave of mud and swept away. After surviving the mudslide that destroyed Vargas, Milano and her family have come to this shelter, a downtown Caracas convention center filled with people lying on mattresses or sitting on garbage bags filled with donated clothing.

Throughout the shelter, people sit with distant stares on expressionless faces. There is nothing to do except think about the tragedy and an uncertain future suddenly hurled into chaos. Some of the displaced were brought to Caracas by bus, others were rescued from the coast by helicopter or boat. But few have any idea where they are going next or how they will start to rebuild their lives.

The government has begun to bus shelter residents in Caracas and other nearby cities to other states, where they will be housed in military barracks until permanent homes can be provided. However, with the number missing estimated at 5,000, the government is unsure how many more people will arrive at the shelters. And relief agencies are asking how they can help the government care for the estimated 471,500 homeless survivors.

"We Lost Everything"

"We lost everything," said 27-year-old Joaquin Alvarer, lying on a mattress in the shelter. Alvarer, who lived with his parents and brother, lost his home and automobile repair shop to the flooding and mud that inundated his hometown of Caravalleda.

Alvarer watched outside as rising waters swirled around his house, and mud pushed its way through a crack in the front door. After fifteen straight days of rain, the water finally began to recede, and he felt he could safely venture outside without being swept away in the current. Alvarer broke open his front door, which had been blocked by a mound of mud.

He walked to his parents' house next door and tore through the roof to rescue them. "The most important thing is that my family and I are alive," said Alvarer, who hopes to get a job as an automobile mechanic in another city.

Stories of Horror

But planning for the future is difficult for those still filled with the horror of the disaster. Twenty-eight year old Maribel Milano's family survived, but she is haunted by memories of the landslide. She talks about a school where a group of homeless people were buried in a sea of mud and debris, about a woman whose scalp was torn away when her daughter tried to pull her from the cement-like mud and about children crying for their lost parents.

"You don't know the pain I feel. A lot of babies died. I saw pieces of bodies. I saw dead bodies and had to walk between them. That is not something I can forget about. I cry when I hear another story of a family affected by the mud."

A Miracle

Despite the sense of loss that permeates the shelters, stories of hope and gratitude emerge. When the floodwaters began to rise outside the home of Joanna Saavedra, 25, she grabbed her son and tried to escape. But as soon as she stepped outside, she was swept off her feet and carried past her home. While still grasping her son, Saavedra made a grab for a tree, where she hung for the next thirty minutes. "The massive water was so strong," she said.

Saavedra thought she and her 3-year-old son would die in the torrent of murky water when a firefighter appeared "almost out of nowhere" to rescue them. "The fireman made miracles happen," she said while sitting on a mattress in the classroom of a Catholic School-turned-shelter. Her son lay on the mattress beside her, sleeping.

Relief Effort

The Venezuelan Ministry of Interior, through the National Civil Defense Authorities are coordinating the relief, rescue and evacuation operations while the Venezuelan Red Cross (VRC) is providing food, shelter and medical care to tens of thousands of people affected by the mudslides. VRC is relying on the support of the American Red Cross and other national societies to assist in the coordination of emergency relief efforts. The American Red Cross was the first national society on the scene in Venezuela and now has a team of seven disaster relief workers including experts in logistics and damage assessment.

According to Santiago Gil, director of the Federation's Americas department in Geneva, Red Cross societies from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, France, Germany and Spain are providing relief to an estimated 150,000 homeless.

Road to Recovery

Basic services such as electricity, telephone and water have been re-established in some areas, and early next year government planners will have to start thinking about rebuilding the devastated zones.

Already officials are warning that it was largely human disregard for nature that led to much of the destruction, and that redevelopment will have to be better planned and much more controlled if future disasters are to be avoided. Officials have said most of Vargas state, an area around half the size of Rhode Island, would have to be razed and turned into parks.

The Chavez government has requested the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in constructing 1,000 houses. Hugo Chavez spoke to President Clinton to request pontoon bridges so rebuilding could begin and Clinton has agreed to supply them.

DisasterRelief.org is a unique partnership between the American Red Cross, IBM and CNN dedicated to providing information about disasters and their relief operations worldwide. The three-year-old website is a leading disaster news source and also serves as a conduit for those wishing to donate to disaster relief operations around the globe through the international Red Cross movement.

All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. To help the victims of disaster, you may make a secure online credit card donation or call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669) or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Or you may send your donation to your local Red Cross or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013.

The American Red Cross is dedicated to helping make families and communities safer at home and around the world. The Red Cross is a volunteer-led humanitarian organization that annually provides almost half the nation's blood supply, trains nearly 12 million people in vital life-saving skills, mobilizes relief to victims in more than 60,000 disasters nationwide, provides direct health services to 2.5 million people, assists international disaster and conflict victims in more than 20 countries, and transmits more than 1.4 million emergency messages to members of the Armed Forces and their families. If you would like information on Red Cross services and programs please contact your local Red Cross.

=A9 Copyright 1999, The American National Red Cross. All Rights Reserved.

DisasterRelief
DisasterRelief.org is a unique partnership between the American Red Cross, IBM and CNN dedicated to providing information about disasters and their relief operations worldwide. The three-year-old website is a leading disaster news source and also serves as a conduit for those wishing to donate to disaster relief operations around the globe through the international Red Cross movement. American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. To help the victims of disaster, you may make a secure online credit card donation or call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669) or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Or you may send your donation to your local Red Cross or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013. The American Red Cross is dedicated to helping make families and communities safer at home and around the world. The Red Cross is a volunteer-led humanitarian organization that annually provides almost half the nation's blood supply, trains nearly 12 million people in vital life-saving skills, mobilizes relief to victims in more than 60,000 disasters nationwide, provides direct health services to 2.5 million people, assists international disaster and conflict victims in more than 20 countries, and transmits more than 1.4 million emergency messages to members of the Armed Forces and their families. If you would like information on Red Cross services and programs please contact your local Red Cross. © Copyright, The American National Red Cross. All Rights Reserved.