Venezuela

One Year Later: Emotional Burdens Slow Venezuelan Recovery

Format
Situation Report
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Posted
Originally published
Written by Stephanie Kriner, Staff Writer, DisasterRelief.org
CARACAS, Venezuela - It's not so much the dark clouds - or even the pelting rain on her flimsy metal roof. That alone would be enough to bring back frightening memories for most victims of last year's mudslides in Venezuela. For 40-year-old Carmen Alvarez, it's the smell of mud that slowly saturates the air, filling her nostrils with the musty scent of soggy earth and eventually becoming so overbearing that she can no longer maintain a brave front for her children.

Alvarez and her neighbors fled the seaside community of Los Cocoteros in Vargas state during last December's deadly mudslides. Once again, last month many were forced - by fear - to evacuate again. "The last time it rained, my son Hector was very nervous - because I was so afraid, he felt my fear," says Alvarez, referring to torrential rains last month that caused deadly mudslides nearly a year after those that killed as many as 50,000 people last December.

"Just like after the mudslides last year, he could not bear to be left alone."

Already a shy boy, 7-year-old Hector became even quieter after last year's mudslides. He clasps his hands and twists them together nervously as his mother cries silently over her memories of the disaster. His face rarely cracks a smile, and his wide, innocent brown eyes reveal little of the horrors they have witnessed.

Venezuelan Red Cross counselors requested that Alvarez and other parents join a recent support group meeting for their children in the coastal Vargas community of Los Cocoteros. "The children we have been helping to recover from the disaster were making progress until they saw their parents panicking during the latest heavy rains," explains Delys Navas, a Venezuelan Red Cross volunteer and counselor who received training in disaster mental health from the American Red Cross. In the wake of last year's mudslides, the American Red Cross worked with the Venezuelan Red Cross and the Mexican Red Cross to create the mental health program.

A year later, American Red Cross-trained counselors continue to respond to the overwhelming psychological needs of disaster victims. Throughout muddy communities of damaged and half-buried homes, shelters and resettlement areas, survivors are coping with the fear, loss and confusion caused by Venezuela's most deadly natural disaster this century.

In addition to being terrified by the slightest hint of rain, mudslide victims suffer from a range of psychological effects, Navas says. Some cry all the time; some are violent or depressed. Others may manifest their emotional pain physically - perhaps in the form of headaches, high blood pressure or stomach pains. "When it rains, many disaster victims complain of stomach aches," Navas says.

Others suffer memory loss, flashbacks or constant fear. "All they can think about is the disaster. Many are overprotective of their families or don't let loved ones leave their sight; sometimes parents don't even let their children go to school," Navas says.

Red Cross mental health workers hold support groups and visit mudslide-stricken communities and families to help Venezuelans cope with the effects of the disaster. "The important thing is for them to express their feelings. After that, they tell us that they feel better," says Navas, who manages a group of mental health workers in Vargas, the most affected area in last year's mudslides.

Located between the Avila Mountains - green slopes scarred by giant, brown claw marks where trees were consumed by the mudslides - and the Caribbean Sea - its brilliant shades of green and blue turned murky brown by the mud - and host to a flood-prone river, Los Cocoteros will likely be the scene of future disasters.

Still, residents feel they must stay here because they worry they won't find a job or house somewhere else in Venezuela, where unemployment and poverty are rampant. Even more importantly, Los Cocoteros is the place that they consider their home. During the floods, shipping containers leaking dangerous chemicals were washed into a nearby river from the sea, but they insisted on remaining despite dangers to their health. "I couldn't understand why we couldn't stay," one mother said during the Red Cross support group discussion.

People who live in Los Cocoteros don't deny the danger - everybody has a bag or suitcase packed, and is ready to leave at a moment's notice. Schools close when it rains, and parents must pick their children up. They follow with precision the advice of Red Cross counselors, who have told them to keep stashes of food and water ready should disaster strike again.

Los Cocoteros turned into a swirling, muddy lake last year when rushing rivers carved their way down the saturated Avila mountains and met with the raging sea. Residents waded through waist-high water, past floating corpses and debris, to find safety at a military base about a mile away on higher ground.

Alvarez says she will never forget the fear that consumed her when she saw the waters coming. She walked with her elderly mother and two sons to the shopping center where buses were boarding evacuees. She and her family could not find a seat on the bus, so they had to walk to the shelter. "Then the river rose much higher," she says, the tears again beginning to trickle from the brown eyes that resemble her son's. "When I saw the river, I told my oldest son to take his brother and run away. I didn't know what else to do."

Alvarez stayed behind to walk with her mother, at first. But then her mother fell down, and she worried that they wouldn't be able to beat the river. So, she left her mother with a family who was living in a house along the way, and ran to catch up with her sons. "I never thought about anything but my children. I even forgot about my mother." After arriving at the shelter, Alvarez eventually found her two sons among the crowd. Two days later, her husband, who had stayed behind to help their neighbors in Los Cocoteros, found both them and her mother.

Weeks later, Alvarez and her neighbors returned to their community. While some neighborhoods had vanished under mud and giant boulders, Los Cocoteros had survived for the most part. Alvarez recalls the day she returned to the seaside neighborhood after spending two weeks in shelters. Her home had survived with little more than some water damages. "But I wasn't worried about my house," she says. "I was worried about the fear that we have. Still now, it starts to rain, and I feel that fear."

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.

=A9 Copyright 2000, 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.