Venezuela Flooding Revives Fears, Reopens Wounds

By Ana Isabel Martinez

VUELTA DEL CEDRO, Venezuela (Reuters) - Nelson Sanchez left his shack carrying his sick brother in his arms, braving torrential flooding to search for a doctor.

Minutes later he was dead.

Neighbors in this dirt-poor Venezuelan shanty town on the outskirts of Caracas say 22-year-old Nelson was swept away last Sunday by a surge in the flood waters that had turned Vuelta de Cedro's stream into a raging torrent.

''This is the second time this has happened to me,'' wept his mother Vilma Montilla, 40.

Devastating mudslides last December took Vilma's mother, her home and the small kiosk that gave her a living. The disaster ravaged the coastal state of Vargas and parts of Caracas, killing up to 30,000 Venezuelans.

Almost a year after the tragedy, the torrential rains that lashed northern Venezuela last week have reawakened memories of last year's mournful Christmas and raised fears it could be repeated.

Vilma, who lives with seven other people crammed into a riverside corrugated-iron shack barely 98 feet square (9 meters square, is one of tens of thousands of poor Venezuelans who face disaster and death when the rainy seasons comes.

The recent downpours have killed two people and left more than 2,000 homeless. The death toll was limited by prompt action from President Hugo Chavez's government, which, mindful of last year's tragedy, declared an emergency in nine states and the capital, Caracas.

Despite the risk that heavy rains will return, Vilma prefers to remain in her makeshift home rather than return to the nightmare of the government shelter to which she fled after December's disaster.

''There, they tried to rape my 12-year-old daughter. My little baby, Maria Chiquinquira, who was only months old, caught diarrhea and a skin infection,'' she said, suckling the child.

While some impoverished victims of last year's mudslides remain in shelters in Vargas and around Caracas, most have returned to their old villages, often situated on steep hillsides or beside brooks that swell when the rains return.

Chavez's promises to resettle Venezuelans living in precarious hillside slums have prompted many to remain put in the hope the government will move them to new model towns it is building in the deserted interior.

''I am not afraid. I have lived here for nine years and nothing has happened to me,'' said Wilfredo Ojeda, 42, a street seller, who said he will not move until the government provides him with a decent home.

Local authorities feel helpless in the face of residents' refusal to abandon their homes.

''It is very difficult because some people will not leave because they have nowhere else to go,'' said Capt. Jorge Molina of Caracas' emergency services. ''Others do not want to leave their belongings ... as they know they will be stolen.''

While his team identified the most precarious homes in Vuelta del Cedro for demolition, they did not know where the inhabitants would go.

''The truth is there is no housing solution for these people,'' Molina said.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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