Venezuela

Rescue and recovery continues in flood-ravaged Venezuela

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Written by Cynthia Long, Staff Writer, DisasterRelief.org
As the Christmas holiday approaches in flood-ravaged Venezuela, thousands of people are without shelter and President Hugo Chavez urged residents throughout the country to open their homes during the holiday and "adopt a family." Days of torrential rains triggered deadly flash floods and avalanches of water, mud and boulders that devastated nine states along Venezuela's north coast, killing many thousands and leaving many more homeless.

On Monday, 70 children were being sheltered at the presidential residence. Officials also are airing pictures of the children on television in hopes they'll be identified. Others left homeless by the floods were being sheltered in sports centers, schools and churches.

Entire communities are still under water or buried in mud. Over the last eleven days, heavy and continuous rains have caused flooding and landslides in the states of Miranda, Vargas, the Federal district of Caracas, the island of Margarita, Yaracuy, Falcon, Carabobo, Zulia and Tachira. Rivers overflowed their banks, and water raged through towns and villages, destroying bridges, washing away roads and hampering rescue and relief efforts. In Caracas, the worst-hit areas were the shantytowns perched precariously on steep mountainsides that were swept away by mudlsides. One third of the city's six million residents lived in mountainside shantytowns.

Thousands of people are evacuated by boat along beaches were thousands more were washed out to sea. Official estimates place the death toll anywhere between 5,000 and 30,000. With many bodies washed out to sea or buried beneath mountains of mud and debris, authorities say they can't yet be precise.

The death toll ''could be 20,000 or it could be 30,000,'' civil defense chief Angel Rangel told The Associated Press today, while acknowledging that estimates are being made partly from census data in towns that were devastated. ''What's for sure is there are thousands and thousands.''

Troops were searching "meter by meter, house by house" for people trapped inside their homes or buried alive beneath mudslides and rubble.

Relief workers reached some of the most remote disaster sites on Monday. In the coastal resort town of Caraballeda, 76-year-old Auristela Granadas cried when she saw rescuers digging through the mud to reach her inside her mud-enveloped home. "I'm OK, even though I don't have anything," Granadas told the Associated Press. "I thought that the hour of death had arrived."

Some communities are still waiting for rescue workers. "We still don't know how many people are still trapped in buildings in areas that still have not been accessed by rescuers," said Macuto resident Dino Dezi. "They need rescue equipment, doctors, helicopters and medicine urgently."

Chavez, who has commanded much of the relief effort, promised that his troops would cross swollen rivers and climb mountains to find people trapped beneath mud and rubble. One newspaper told how a man trapped with his family, some of them dead, called a radio station on a mobile phone.

President Chavez has commanded much of the relief effort.

As he pleaded for help, Chavez personally came on the line and urged him to stay calm. Chavez also announced that he would make space for about 3,200 homeless flood victims on military bases around Venezuela by giving soldiers early Christmas leave.

The Venezuelan Red Cross has mobilized more than 1,300 volunteers and staff who are working in coordination with civil defense authorities. They are assisting in search and rescue operations, helping evacuate people, transporting the injured and providing food, blankets and clothes to survivors in 16 shelters in Caracas and dozens more in the rest of the country.

A team of seven American Red Cross (ARC) disaster relief workers from the Disaster Services International Response Team (IRT) and the International Services Emergency Response Unit (ERU) are now in Venezuela joining with the multi-national response to the disaster. The team includes experts in logistics, communication and mental health.

Many residents are walking to safety rather than waiting for boats or helicopters to evacuate them. According to Langdon Greenhalgh, one of the ARC delegates on the ground in Venezuela, an estimated 500,0000 people are expected to be evacuated from the hard-hit state of Vargas, just north of the capital city of Caracas. The area is without potable water, power and communications.

Because extensive damage to the roads has made it impossible for rescue efforts and the transportation of relief supplies on land, most of the survivors in Vargas are being evacuated by boat, helicopter and airplane and taken to less affected areas for safety. Many residents, however, have decided to evacuate on their own and are leaving ravaged coastal areas on foot or on horseback.

The government launched a massive air-and-sea rescue in Vargas, involving 12,000 troops, about 40 helicopters and several warships to evacuate people. "The most important thing right now is to evacuate everyone...as soon as possible," said Defense Minister Gen. Raul Salazar. "It will take about five more days." He added that it will take at least 10 years to rebuild the disaster area.

Private economists believe the damage to roads, ports, bridges, electricity, telephone lines, schools, hospitals and homes could reach $2 billion. Towns were completely decimated by powerful mudslides and are now little more than uprooted trees and slabs of concrete awash in a sea of mud.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has issued a cash appeal for $2.8 million to assist 50,000 people for three months. ARC immediately released $50,000 to the relief effort and sent the first of many supply shipments, including water containers, blankets, bedsheets, tents, hygiene kits with supplies like shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrushes, and a generator. The Spanish, Colombian, Mexican, and Dominican Republic Red Cross Societies are also responding to the disaster, and it is expected that other societies will join the effort in the coming days.

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.

© 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.