On Thursday, heavy rains were expected in Caracas and along the Avila mountain range that divides the capital city from Vargas state, where whole towns were swept away this month by huge avalanches of mud, rocks, and downed trees. Venezuelan Air Force Chief Meteorologist Jose Periera urged residents to evacuate their homes if they felt unsafe and not to wait for advisories from Civil Defense workers.
In Venezuela's worst natural disaster of modern times, mud and floodwaters destroyed thousands of flimsy homes on mountainside shantytowns along a 60-mile swath of the Vargas coast.
A top Red Cross official estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 people were killed; most of their bodies were washed out to sea or lay buried in the mud, never to be found.
George Weber, secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said the catastrophe could rank as Latin America's worst disaster of the 20th century, surpassing even Hurricane Mitch which battered Central America a year ago, killing at least 9,000 people. Venezuelan government figures have put the death toll between 20,000 and 30,000. About 400,000 people were left homeless in the South American country of 23 million.
Officials Fear Another Disaster
While thousands of residents have gladly evacuated the disaster area, others have stayed behind to protect their belongings from looters or to rebuild. And following the initial evacuations, thousands of people have returned to their homes near rivers that threaten to swell again or along mountain slopes that could collapse any time.
"Everyone we love is here," Carmen De Uria resident Florentino Diaz told the Associated Press. "We can't just leave this place." Some refused to leave even as torrents from recent rains returned to sweep through their homes. Others are trapped in areas that remain inaccessible to relief workers and military officials. Those who are unable or unwilling to leave risk death from heavy rains that could further loosen soil on populated hillsides.
As the rains approached, President Hugo Chavez himself urged people to head to safety before it was too late. "If I lived in a shantytown, I would decide to leave with my wife and children and start all over," he said. He renewed his offer to put military barracks at the disposal of the tens of thousands of people left homeless. "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.
But, in a speech late Wednesday, he stressed that this would be a temporary measure and that those who had to abandon their homes would eventually be given land and assistance to start anew. Eventually Chavez hopes to convert the disaster area, where thousands of bodies remain buried in the mud, into memorial grounds.
Some of Chavez's critics have charged that authorities ignored warning signs of a huge disaster looming in Vargas on December 15. They claimed that Chavez and his government were too busy overseeing the vote on a key referendum on a new constitution to worry about the weather. Chavez and government ministers have said that the catastrophe couldn't have been avoided and that poor urban planning under previous governments allowed illegal shanties to be built on unstable terrain.
Civil Defense Chief Angel Rangel told the Globovision television network that at least 4 million Venezuelans lived in areas highly vulnerable to floods or landslides. He said that the problem "was not so much the rain but the type of country on which it fell. In Caracas it rains for one hour and slums slide down the mountain."
Red Cross Drafts Long-Term Relief Plan
The Venezuelan Red Cross (VRC) has announced a plan to supply 50,000 families with three months of relief supplies. The plan, which will draw from the resources of the American Red Cross and other national societies, also includes a series of community support programs, such mental and physical health projects, and disaster prevention projects.
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.
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