Never before have I seen anything like it. The disaster that hit northern Venezuela in mid December was catastrophic. Although I only visited a small part of the affected area, what I witnessed was a clear indication of the power of this natural phenomenon whose effects were aggravated by poor construction and lack of residential planning.
They say there will never be an exact accounting of the death toll, but estimates are now between 20,000 and 50,000 with the number of people affected by the disaster estimated at 400,000.
The destruction of the floods and mudslides was evident everywhere. Along a primary coastal road in La Guira, within the state of Vargas, only partially passable through the meters of mud and sand, cars are scattered about everywhere: upside down in the mud, engines pointing towards the sky, on their sides. Sometimes you saw the whole car, other times just a small piece of evidence that a car was there, buried beneath the mud, like an edge of a tire or a sideview mirror. The first floors of houses and stores were covered with mud and debris, large tree trunks and limbs were everywhere. Rocks and boulders traveled from the mountaintops and lodged themselves into the coastal sand miles below.
As we walked around La Guira, it felt a bit like a ghost town that had been abandoned years ago. There was little sign of life in neighborhoods that were literally wiped away. Climbing over the ruins left behind, I thought about who, if anyone, was buried beneath me, who lived here, who did that doll belong to that's now missing an arm, who was the owner of that torn sweater? The disaster invaded the privacy of thousands, exposing private homes of families by tearing off walls and doorways. Who hung that poster in the second floor bedroom, whose photo is on the wall in the kitchen, who hung the Christmas decorations on that window frame?
Now that I am in route back to the United States, I finally have a few moments to myself to reflect on this incredible week. As I look back on all that I observed, all that I experienced, all that I felt, I realize that it's the people I met along the way that impacted me the most and that will stay in my heart and mind for a long time to come. Let me introduce them to you. I don't know all of their names, but their faces I will never forget.
The first people that amazed me were the Aeropostal staff at the Miami airport. I arrived in Miami with no confirmed flight to Venezuela. The airport in Caracas was closed as a result of the disaster, flights were cancelled right and left and the few that were flying were landing in Valencia, about two hours drive from Caracas. Since Valencia was a small airport, it was not equipped for large planes or high levels of traffic. Basically all the international airline carriers cancelled their flights, leaving only a few flights on Venezuelan airlines to carry all of the stranded passengers in Miami. To make matters worse, it was Christmas time, a time of year when many Venezuelans living in the US reunite with their families in Caracas.
Besides the chaos created by the high demand for seats and low supply of flights, the Aeropostal staff were dealing with their own hardship. An employee of the company told me that of their 1,800 staff, 1,000 of them were missing. Many of the airport employees lived near the Caracas airport and therefore were directly affected by the disaster. But despite angry passengers, despite their mourning for their colleagues and compatriots in Venezuela, despite having to work extra hard with half as many staff, despite the fact that it was the wee hours of the morning on Christmas Eve, they were patient and determined to find a solution for each and every passenger. I was especially grateful to the airline staff who made special concessions for me, knowing that I worked with a humanitarian organization, advancing me to the front of the line and to getting me on the next available flight into Venezuela. They showed sincere appreciation of me and others who were trying to help their country.
Mercy Corps Team
I was fortunate to join a team of three professional, competent and compassionate individuals who were working on behalf of Mercy Corps in Venezuela. They too had given up Christmas with family and friends at moments' notice. They too had trips planned and parties to go to. They too thought that the meaning of Christmas might just be found where you least expect it. Their hard work, dedication and spirit throughout our week in Venezuela were an inspiration to me.
Alexander was one of the first Venezuelan Red Cross volunteers that we met. He was a tremendous help to us all week. Alexander is a young, shy and extremely dedicated volunteer. Its too bad he had to experience so much horror so early in life. Alexander, along with hundreds of his Red Cross comrades helped with the emergency from day one, searching for and rescuing people, jumping out of helicopters into isolated areas to help, not knowing when he would return home, having to explain to his parents why he needed to spend yet another night in the Red Cross building in order to be fully available to those who needed him. Alexander accompanied us to visit temporary shelters all day long on Christmas day. He was patient with us and understood the importance of our learning about the situation in order to be able to help. Alexander also managed to arrange a car and driver to take us to La Guira, one of the disaster areas, at a time when Red Cross vehicles were not readily available. Once again, he spent t entire day with us and helped us understand more about this tragedy.
The first shelter we went to visit was not intended to be a shelter at all. It was a private Catholic school that was being used as a distribution center. Apparently two families showed up there and the nuns couldn't bear to turn them away. One family, a mother, father and five children, arrived at the shelter with only three of their children, the two smaller children missing. They were devastated. The mudslides and waves of water literally tore their family apart. To their surprise and delight, after several days at the shelter the two missing boys were located and returned to their parents. When we arrived, we found them laughing and playing with toy helicopters and plastic cell phones that "El Nino Jesus" had given them for Christmas. The parents were extremely grateful that we had come to visit them and that we were trying to help their country in such a time of need. They told us about and area called Zamora, from where they came, and asked us to go there to help the people left behind.
The other family at the shelter was a woman, mother of two, with her 14-year-old daughter. She too had experienced the disappearance of a child. But in this case, the child was not found. Her 15-year-old daughter, and older sister of teenager girl we met, was also torn away from their family, never to be found.
This situation created an almost unbearable reality for both families. One lost, two found, one family elated, one in mourning. One family feeling guilty and undeserving of the Christmas gift they received, the other family feel resentful and saying, "why me." And yet, through it all, in this small simple shelter, both families that never knew each other before, supported one another, their children played together, they laughed and they cried as one and shared each other's joys and pains.
There were compelling stories in all the shelters we went to visit. I remember talking to a mother watching her 5-year-old son play with a new car he got for Christmas. She said to me that he didn't know yet that his father had died. He thinks that his father is away on a trip. She wasn't sure when she would tell him the truth. She suffered what thousands of families from this disaster are suffering. It is heartbreaking to see the hundreds of pictures of missing families members plastered over the walls of all the shelters with handwritten descriptions of the loved ones scribbled below the photos: men, women, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, grandmothers, grandfathers, children, babies, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, with big smiles and bright eyes looking out at you. How long would they be called "missing"? How do you know if a loved one is alive or dead if you didn't see them die and you haven't seen the body? When does a missing person become one more number on the death toll? Who decides when a missing person becomes deceased? At what point can a family bare the suffering of putting a missing person to rest in their hearts and minds? How do they deal with the sense of betrayal of their loved ones which they feel when they final bury them in their minds, even when there is always some remote chance that they are not dead at all. How does one move forward and start anew if the past continues to haunt you? These are all tragedies that still lie ahead for thousands in Venezuelans.
We found Sam from a contact of a contact of a Mercy Corps employee. Sam is American but he grew up in Venezuela as a missionary child. He is basically a bilingual and bicultural pastor in Caracas and an organizer and motivator human spirits. Sam represents the Council of Evangelical Churches and related organizations in Venezuela. From this group, approximately 1,000 volunteers were organized to help the victims of the disaster in all sorts of ways: search and rescue, cooking meals, medical care, counseling, collecting clothing, giving out toys for Christmas, etc. Sam is an extremely dedicated man with vision and a belief in a brighter future. The time he spent with us on Christmas day evening was extremely valuable to our understanding more about the needs of the country after this tragedy.
Our meeting of Alejandro was serendipitous and extremely fortunate. Alejandro is a young man who is studying at the University in Caracas. He comes from a wealthy family and has his own Ford Explorer. His contribution to the disaster response effort is his time and his car, which he makes available to the Red Cross to drive people to where they need to go on days when he is available. His mother and father are very proud of him and his solidarity with the disaster victims. Given the lack of vehicles at the Red Cross, this contribution is extremely valuable. We were lucky that on the day we were scheduled to visit La Guira to witness first hand the disaster zone, Alejandro was available to help us. He took us everywhere we needed to go; he was patient, respectful, courteous, and giving. At the end of the day we invited Alejandro to join us for dinner. He reluctantly said no, his mother was cooking dinner that night and she would be very disappointed if he wasn't there to enjoy it.
Jonathan in Zamora
During our time spent in La Guira, we came across Zamora, the area that the two shelter families told us about. Indeed this was an area severely affected by the mudslides. The families in Zamora were poorer than other areas we had seen. Entire homes were destroyed and debris was everywhere. In our search for the local community shelter we came across a 10-year-old boy, Jonathan, on the side of the road and asked him for directions. He happened to be staying at that shelter and would take us there. He jumped in the back of the car with enthusiasm, excited to be with these strange visitors.
I talked to Jonathan a bit about what happened that famous day in December when walls of water destroyed his community. He said he was outside playing with friends that day. All of a sudden he heard a loud "bing, bang, boom." He first thought it was the sound of holiday firecrackers going off. Then he realized it was something much bigger. The noise got louder and louder and closer and closer. He became scared and escaped to some higher land and watched the wall of mud and water tear through his community. He said he started to cry. But, he said that he is ok now. Fortunately, he didn't loose anyone in his family. During our tour of the shelter and the services being provided to the shelter families I asked him what he wanted to be when he grows up. He said he wanted to be a doctor so that he can help people in need.
Alexander, who was with us during the visit in Zamora, talked to the local priest about the needs in the shelter telephoned back to the Red Cross headquarters office to send needed supplies of food and medicines ASAP.
Mother in Need
In the same Zamora shelter I met a mother of three who looked to be in her 40s. She was breastfeeding her year-old baby girl. Next to her was her husband. He looked emaciated and had a blank stare on his face as if he was in another world. She told me that they had lost everything they owned in the disaster. She had three children to feed, nowhere to go, no money, no job. Her husband didn't appear to be in any condition to help this family get back on its feet. It would be up to her, with a child at her breast and two in tow; she would be the one responsible for carrying on and moving the family forward.
Through our contacts and meetings we learned about SOSCAL, a local Civil Society NGO, lead by Mireya, the organization's director. We met with Mireya at the SOCSAL office and were taken by the work she has done, her leadership within the local NGO community and her commitment to keep striving for more impact and positive change at the local level. With emergency proposal deadlines and flight departures hanging over us, we were pressured into identifying a local partner NGO and fast. After meeting with Mireya, we invited her to join us in the project we were developing and she enthusiastically agreed. Within the next 24 hours we had significant and important information from SOCSAL, a letter of interest in the proposal and some written ideas about the project. Mireya's speedy response to our needs and belief in this potential partnership were critical in helping us to pull together our concept paper for an emergency proposal on time.
Now that I am back in the United States and on the last leg of my journey home, the Venezuela experience almost seems surreal. Here I am safely on American soil. Life here goes on just as I left it. There are no mudslides here today, no natural disasters, and Venezuela is an afterthought that shows up on the last page of the local paper. As the story dies here in the US, the struggle to rebuild and rehabilitate the lives and communities of this disaster's victims in Venezuela just begins.
My trip to Venezuela was an appropriate way to end the year and the millennium, with thoughts, reflections and emotions to start the New Year. I am reminded of the fragility of human life and the strength of the human spirit, I am awed by the power of mother nature, and I am encouraged by the coming together of people near and far to help their fellow man, woman and child in a time of need.