Venezuela

One Year Later: Venezuelans still recovering from Mudslides

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Situation Report
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Posted
Originally published
Written by Stephanie Kriner, Staff Writer, DisasterRelief.org, with news reports
CARACAS, Venezuela - Bella Palma can't imagine a life outside Piedra Azok, a small community in the northern Venezuelan state of Vargas. Like nearby coastal neighborhoods, Piedra Azul - nestled inside the lush, fog covered hills of the surrounding Avila Mountains - is an oasis outside the constant cacophony of Caracas. It also remains a somber reminder of the catastrophic floods and mudslides that killed tens of thousands of people a year ago. Venezuelans consider Dec. 15 and 16 the anniversary of the worst disaster to occur in their country this century.

Mud filled alleys still stretch to the second floor of flimsy houses in the village of Piedra Azul and other affected communities throughout Vargas and much of northern Venezuela. Reluctant to leave the only place they know as home, residents live in the dusty top floors, entering through windows or makeshift doors. Gigantic boulders that thundered from the hilltops, crushing homes and destroying forests, lay where they finally rested last December.

Construction equipment chugs through a riverbed, where hundreds of homes once quietly stood. Some areas of the community have been declared too dangerous to live; although the government is digging deeper rivers with tunnels leading to the sea. It is hoped that this will allow some residents to keep their homes.

As Venezuela continues to rebuild following last year's mudslides, the signs of danger keep resurfacing:

Mudslides hit Piedra Azul and other parts of Vargas again last month, making more people homeless and killing at least four. Just like last year, the heavy rains were considered unseasonable.

"This year's mudslides forced people to realize that recovery is going to take much longer than they had hoped," said Jennifer Peavey, an American Red Cross delegate managing the Venezuelan mudslide relief program in Caracas.

Although Palma's home was nearly destroyed last December, she still wants to remain in the shattered community. "It's where I grew up. All my life has been built here," she says, as tears begin to stream down her face.

Palma rarely sleeps in her half-destroyed home because "it's too risky when it rains." Each night, she stays with a different friend, many whose homes also were damaged in the disaster. She speaks forlornly about the friends who have moved away and about her three sons who are staying in Caracas - two with their father and another with his mother-in-law - because Piedra Azul is too unsafe.

"We need to have a place where we can stay together again," she says, adding that she hopes the government will offer her a house in Vargas. The government is providing residents with new homes, but most Vargas residents will have to move out of the disaster-prone state, according to government officials. Disaster victims are given the homes at no cost for the first year, and then they will be required to make payments based on their income. They also are given a stipend.

The government has provided homes to some 5,000 families in Vargas, most of whom have lived for months in shelters, officials say. Another 5,000 are slated to receive homes in the coming months, with even more on the way. Tens of thousands lost homes throughout Venezuela's flood-stricken states. The entire process of moving people into new homes is expected to be completed by 2003, but some residents, who don't trust the government, say that they doubt they will receive a home. "There is a lot of corruption," Palma says. "I doubt I'll ever get help."

Despite the aid, many people who have received homes are having a rough time starting over. "In Venezuela, people are being asked to move away from their communities and, many times, they aren't being accepted in the new ones. Many are unable to find jobs," Peavey said.

Palma's determination to stay in Piedra Azul despite the heavy risks is typical of many mudslide victims. Afraid to leave their villages, friends and the only life they know, they deal with the fears of another disaster.

Many of them live along riverbanks that were carved by water rushing down the mountains last year. Others live on deteriorating hillsides, their homes teetering on the edge, or in communities where their neighbors' corpses are still buried under the mud and debris.

When it rains, Piedra Azul residents don't sleep, says Lourdes Rivero, treasurer of the neighborhood association and a respected community leader. They stand guard outside their homes, watching the rising rivers, glaring at the surrounding mountains, listening for the familiar wisp of a mudslide. Many flood-stricken communities are armed with whistles that they blow to warn their neighbors of impending danger.

Rivero, who believes her hillside home is relatively safe since it is located on higher ground, remembers the river as a child. When it dried up, people built homes in the riverbed. She believes it may return for good next time. "Unfortunately, people will have to leave. This is a river," she says while staring at the trickle of water running downstream. "I grew up here, and I remember."

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.