Venezuela

As rains continue, Venezuelan government forces thousands to evacuate

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Written by Stephanie Kriner, Staff Writer, DisasterRelief.org
As heavy rains and flooding threaten more lives along Venezuela's devastated Caribbean coast, authorities are forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes. Officials plan to make about 2,500 people vacate high-risk areas in Caracas and mudslide-prone regions along the coast. Their efforts gained a renewed sense of urgency Monday when more rain and flooding destroyed the homes of 200 people in the border state of Tachira.

Since a Dec. 15 mudslide killed as many as 20,000 to 50,000 people, thousands of survivors have stayed behind in the disaster zone to rebuild or protect their belongings from looters - even after President Hugo Chavez ordered residents to evacuate. Adding to the threatened population, many of those who cooperated and evacuated in the days following the disaster have since returned to their homes - simple dwellings that sit near swelling rivers or along mountain slopes that could collapse at any time.

Thousands of families already have evacuated Venezuela's flood-ravaged Caribbean coast. In Venezuela's worst natural disaster of modern times, mudslides and floodwaters destroyed thousands of flimsy homes in mountainside shantytowns along a 60-mile swath of the northern Caribbean coast.

The Red Cross estimates that between 20,000 and 50,000 people were killed. An exact number is impossible to pinpoint as most of the bodies were washed out to sea or buried in the mud, never to be found.

Along the coast, officials are targeting their evacuations, which could take several days, to valleys where avalanches of mud, rocks and trees came roaring down the Avila Mountains, the majestic range that divides Caracas from Vargas state. Thousands of others will be allowed to remain in the disaster area, but the vallyes at the foot of the mountains - where entire towns were swept away in a sea of mud last month - are the most vulnerable.

Even as authorities began the forced evacuations, the weather reminded them of the situation's urgency. On Monday, heavy rains and flooding destroyed 200 homes in Tachira, close to the Colombian border. There were no deaths reported, but the floods forced the city's international airport to shut down and prompted a state of emergency. About 2,000 people evacuated their homes and sought shelter in schools and stadiums.

On the outskirts of Caracas, evacuation efforts concentrated on poor neighborhoods where flimsy homes have been built on precarious slopes and along river gorges. "It's natural that people who have spent many years in the same house are attached to it. We're trying to explain to them that material possessions mean nothing without life," Civil Defense Director Angel Rangel told Reuters.

Civil Defense workers, firemen and police are conducting a house-to-house evacuation operation. Meanwhile, showers continue and dark gray clouds shroud the towering Avila Mountains. "The atmospheric instability that caused the December rains is still present in the Caribbean area," Air Force meteorology director Jose Pereira told the Radio Caracas Radio station.

Mudslides left patches of mud along once lush green hillsides.

Other areas have become more vulnerable as rivers threaten to overrun their banks, unstable hillsides continue to erode and persistent flooding blocks relief crews from reaching the devastated areas. Rains have flooded the main road to Vargas, the worst-hit area. "There are lots of communities that are difficult to reach, reachable only by boat or helicopter. By evacuating the people, you have greater accountability of the population and their safety and whereabouts," said American Red Cross (ARC) spokesperson Leslie Credit.

Government, Relief Organizations Reshape Venezuela's Future

With many people reluctant to abandon their homes, Chavez has offered to house tens of thousands of people in military barracks. "I am even willing to give leave to the entire armed forces if needed ... to relocate all the people who are in those dangerous areas," he said.

Those forced to leave their homes behind will eventually be given land and assistance to start anew in the country's virtually empty interior -- away from the crowded and vulnerable Caribbean coast. Eventually Chavez hopes to convert the disaster area, where thousands of bodies remain buried in the mud, into memorial grounds.

Under the government's plan, some 3,500 homes in the disaster zone will be demolished immediately to prevent people from returning. Occupants will receive housing elsewhere, but relocating everyone out of harm's way will present an enormous challenge for the government. By some estimates, as many as 24,000 homes should be torn down in Caracas alone, and about 200,000 people already are homeless as a result of the disaster. To make matters worse, the country suffers from a huge housing deficit, the product of 20 years of economic decline.

Mudslides that buried entire villages left thousands homeless. The reconstruction bill for the country's shattered infrastructure has been estimated at $20 billion -- billions more than has been offered in aid or loans by foreign countries.
On December 20th, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched a preliminary appeal for $2.8 million. Over seventy per cent of the International Federation's preliminary appeal target has now been met.

ARC has raised more than $3 million and sent shipments of 50,000 pounds of relief supplies, in addition to seven four-wheel-drive vehicles and 20,000 pounds of water purification supplies. ARC delegates are currently in Caracas, helping the Venezuelan Red Cross to feed homeless families and connect people with loved ones lost during the disaster. ARC will also be channeling donations from the American people to support programs in the affected area.

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.