The pain remains for Venezuela's displaced flood victims

by Paola Chorna in Lara and Caracas
The floods and mudslides that hit Venezuela three years ago were a landmark in the grim catalogue of natural catastrophes to affect Latin America.

Up to 30,000 people were estimated to have died in the disaster, which struck on 16 December 1999. On 15 and 16 December, almost 800 mm of rain fell, causing devastating landslides in the mountains surrounding the capital and throughout the country.

Some half a million people were affected by the disaster. More than 80,000 homes were damaged and over 26,000 completely destroyed. Many residents were quickly evacuated from the danger zone and relocated in shelters in other states.

"We were not prepared for what happened," says May Badillo, a Venezuelan Red Cross (VRC) worker who was carrying out a rainfall report in the coastal region of Vargas, one of the worst-affected areas. "The mudslides rushed down from the ravines and we were immediately cut off."

"We felt powerless. We could do nothing to help the people," agrees Carlos Sanchez, chief of the VRC Unit in the Capital District. "When we were rescued by a helicopter two days later, the scene we saw, the Vargas that we knew so well had been completely torn apart. I never imagined seeing a tragedy of such dimensions in Venezuela."

The government transferred more than 50,000 families to the safety of Lara state, but the move from the inundated coastal regions to inland areas came as a massive culture shock to many.

Three years on, some have yet to come to terms with the upheaval, but the VRC has helped by giving those affected psychosocial support to allow them to deal with the shock of the floods and adapt to their new surroundings and a new way of life. It also organised several workshops to help small businesses and paid subsidies to help people get back on their feet financially.

Bus driver José Rojas came from Vargas. After the VRC gave him a credit with which to buy his own van, he was able to start up his own business, on the understanding he took children to school and back evey day. Because of the distances involved, these children - the sons and daughters of people displaced from Vargas - had been unable to attend school.

Even if José has found employment with Red Cross help, the rest of his family has found it hard to acclimatise. His wife says she would like to go back to Vargas in a near future, because her children "cannot adapt to the new environment".

Other youngsters, like brother and sister Karla, 15, and 16-year-old Josue, have also had problems integrating, even if the Red Cross helped to reestablish their father's carpentry workshop. "We are going to apply to study at Caracas University. We do not want to stay in Lara any more," Karla says.

Another person to benefit from VRC help is hairdresser Marisol Rodriguez. She is enjoying her new life in Lara because she has been able to keep doing her job, despite the relocation. She has many customers and says she never wants to return to Vargas.

"My life wouldn't have been the same without the support of the Red Cross," Marisol says, referring to the loan the VRC made to help her replace the hairdressing equipment she lost in the floods.

Her husband, Carlos, explains that when they arrived in Lara, life was difficult because they suffered discrimination, but he is determined to make the most of their new life. "We have to be positive, we didn't lose our lives, and that is the only real thing of that matters."

"We won't return to Vargas. We are still very upset when we think about the tragedy," he says, adding that, in any case, his family is happy in Lara. The same is not true of Marisol's parents, who have returned to Vargas because they could not cope with being uprooted.

The Vargas experience has raised the profile of the VRC in Venezuela, and volunteers have been touched by people's gratitude.

It has been three years since the disaster. For many people, this is not just a painful memory, but also part of a troubled present.