Venezuela, the long road ahead

Kim Bartley has just returned from Venezuela, in this article of January 12 she describes the situation there.
Two weeks of unrelenting rain in Venezuela last month led to what is now officially on record as the worst ever natural disaster of the last century in Latin America.

On the night of Wednesday the 15th of December, streams and rivers running down the Avila mountain range, swollen from weeks of torrential rain came roaring down the mountainside, crashing through towns and villages along the coast and destroying everything in their paths.

Entire settlements were buried in a matter of minutes under tonnes of mud and rubble, trees were ripped from the ground and cars came crashing through people's homes.

Survivors recall a night of pure terror. Although most people realised that the rain that evening was unusually fierce, no one imagined that by the next morning they would have lost everything they ever owned and that up to 50,000 people would be dead, in many cases buried alive in a matter of seconds.

On the morning of December the 16th, Venezuela awoke to absolute devastation. Over 100 kilometres of coast destroyed overnight and 400,000 "damnificados" - people left homeless.

Most of the survivors spent the night huddled on rooftops or managed to climb to safety in the hills and find a patch of solid ground between rivers. The lights had gone out the previous evening and everything that followed happened in pitch dark. People were crying, screaming for help and throughout the night the powerful roar of the water filled the air. A noise people say they will never forget. The survivors I have met have recurring nightmares, they're frightened of the rain, their children are afraid to take a bath. It will take a very long time for the trauma to subside, and the grief.

Some sought refuge in the homes of friends and family while those with nowhere to go were given shelter in schools, townhalls and army barracks where soldiers were given leave to free up space for the hundreds of homeless. The walls of these refuges are covered with photographs of lost relatives; pictures of lost children taken in happier times, last Christmas by the tree and now disappeared since the night of the 15th. Most of the dead will never be recovered and entire villages have been sealed off, declared disaster areas and left as vast, desolate unmarked graveyards.

In a profound state of shock, many people seemed to wander around in a daze in the weeks following the disaster.

Besides the reconstruction of the affected areas, where the cost will run into billions of dollars, the biggest problem now facing the Venezuelan government is the rehousing of over 200,000 people to the interior of the country. President Hugo Chavez plans to provide livelihoods for these new communities through the development of agriculture in designated areas but this will not be an easy task. Most of those who lost their homes and jobs in the floods were dependent on the proximity of the capital city, the international airports of Maiquetia and La Guaira, many more were dependent on the tourism industry along the Carribbean coast.

The magnitude of the task ahead is considerable. To date Venezuela has received millions of dollars, as well as tonnes of food and medicine to help with the emergency response. Though the attention of the media is no longer concentrated on Venezuela, people should not forget about the situation here...there lies a long road ahead.

Kim Bartley is Communications & Media Officer for Concern Worldwide.

Concern is currently funding 2 projects in Venezuela:

An immediate emergency programme in partnership with the Italian aid agency CESVI, in the State of Miranda, providing food and water to the many affected communities that have remained isolated from the rest of the country since the roads were destroyed in the flooding.

A long term project in partnership with Save The Children Fund which aims to provide identification for the 600,000 children in Venezuela who are not officially registered as existing citizens.

Author: Kim Bartley
Phone: 1850 410510
Concern, Upper Camden Street, Dublin 2.