Venezuela Disaster Response Underway: Up to 50,000 Killed and 400,000 Homeless

By John Yale and Kevin Cook, Senior Relief Administrator and LACRO Regional Communications Director -- December 29, 1999
World Vision is preparing to provide emergency relief assistance to survivors of catastrophic flooding and landslides in northern Venezuela which have left an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 dead and another 400,000 homeless.

Striking a relatively small but densely populated and impoverished region of the country, the disaster has been reported as the worst to strike Latin America this century, possibly eclipsing by far the toll of death and destruction produced by Hurricane Mitch last year.

World Vision's Senior Relief Administrator, John Yale, arrived in Caracas last week, and will be joined by key World Vision relief and communications staff over the next several days. A rapid response strategy -- consisting of action plans, management, personnel and finance systems, and mobilization of core relief staff -- will be completed shortly. Plans for the first phase of World Vision's relief response are being defined, with emergency food, water, shelter, and medicines identified as top priorities.

Logistics are the main immediate challenge, said Latin America Regional Office (LACRO) Regional Relief Director David Taylor. Many roads and bridges have been damaged or destroyed by flash floods and landslides that began on December 15, isolating numerous communities in seven northern states.

"Access to disaster sites is largely through helicopters," Taylor explained. "There are also early difficulties determining what other responses are taking place, who the key players are, and where the gaps are that we can best fill."

The Adventist Development Relief Agency (ADRA) is well-established in Venezuela and is expected to become World Vision's main implementing partner within the country, Taylor added.

"ADRA is ready to work with us, and the relationship promises to be a positive one," he said. "ADRA's main asset in Venezuela is its church infrastructure, and although lightly staffed they are already registered with the government, so a 'joint venture' has the potential for being a win/win for both agencies."

A preliminary disaster assessment has been completed by John Yale, who flew over hardest-hit areas along the north coast of Vargas state by helicopter last Friday.

"I have seen the massive destruction and devastation of war in a number of countries including Somalia, Liberia, Mozambique, and Angola, but I have rarely seen so much death and destruction in one small area with almost all of the survivors left homeless," Yale reported. "The flooding and landslides happened so quickly that thousands of people had no chance of escape."

"The areas I flew over were mostly deserted. Only a few people could be seen on the ground. The first city east from the international airport looked liked it had suffered a nuclear blast," Yale continued. "Most structures appeared to be destroyed, buried, or damaged. On the mountainsides, areas that looked like they were once lined with houses, are now cliffs of exposed earth and rubble. Structures left standing on the hillsides often teetered precariously over mud cliffs. Below on the coastal plain and hillsides, I could see large areas covered by mud and rubble. I was told that the mud had reached a depth of a four-story building in some areas."

Most of those killed and displaced by the disaster were poor families who had erected flimsy homes and shantytowns on the sides of steep mountains which collapsed on top of them after four days of torrential downpours, Yale explained. Only an approximate number of dead can be estimated among the million or so who previously inhabited the disaster areas, he said.

"In some areas entire 'barrios' were destroyed by massive landslides. Tidal waves of mud, boulders, and water covered large areas of coastal towns and cities, with thousands of people believed to be buried alive under the sea of mud and rubble. Others drowned in the flooding rivers. Tens of thousands were stranded between the sea and the mountains after roads and bridges were destroyed," Yale said.

Search and rescue teams from the government, military and NGOs have been flying into disaster areas helicopters to airdrop food, water and medical personnel and repel down ropes to reach trapped and injured survivors. Some 140,000 survivors have been rescued from the disaster areas and are being housed temporarily at military bases, schools, church, sports facilities, and convention in at least eight cities around the country. The Venezuela government and the military have taken charge of assistance to evacuees with the help of local NGOs. Critical relief needs include food, water, shelter, medicines, medical care, and basic domestic supplies. Generators and water purifying equipment are also requested, along with road and construction equipment for rehabilitation of infrastructure in disaster areas.

Although epidemic outbreaks have yet to be reported, there is fear that decomposing bodies will further contaminate water sources in the disaster area. The government is considering measures to prohibit the excavation of areas containing bodies so as to limit contamination.

To make a donation to aid the families affected by the floods, click here.

Donations to Venezuela Flood Relief Effort can also be made by calling, toll-free, 1-800-657-4907 (English) or 1-888-511-6566 (Spanish), or mail to P.O. Box 70288, Tacoma, Washington 98481-0288.

Copyright 1999 World Vision Inc.