Venezuela mobilizes for disaster

From fast food chains to the first lady, relief efforts are under way after floods leave up to 30,000 dead.

Howard LaFranchi, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CARACAS - Before last week's devastating storms struck Venezuela, Helena Ibarra was better known as a caterer to the Caracas elite.

Today, her cooking school Cocido a Mano or "Cooked by Hand," is providing 1,500 meals a day to shelters for those left homeless by flooding and mudslides in and near the capital. The school is located in the San Bernardino neighborhood, one of the affected areas.

"More than just teaching to put together a meal, our broader mission is to improve the quality of life. So how could we not be involved in the relief effort?" Ms. Ibarra says.

With the help of cooking students, a few musicians, and two of the newly homeless from the leveled community of La Guaira, in nearby Vargas state, Ibarra has the school's 16 stoves continuously cooking hearty soups in industrial-sized pots.

Ibarra's is not so much a choked-up response to her country's emergency as it is a matter-of-fact conviction that food is more than just physical sustenance - especially in the case of disaster victims.

"Aside from helping to prevent dehydration, there is something very comforting about hot soup," she says. "It helps provide a sense of home to people who have lost theirs.

"I don't have time for a lot of details and emotion, so if I decide I need lentils for the next meal, I call up someone I know very well has supplies and scream, 'Lentils!' So far I'm getting what I need," she adds, from an office full of pumpkins that will make a hearty soup.

Worst in a century

Torrential rains lashed Venezuela's northern Caribbean coast last week, sending avalanches of mud, rocks, and debris that turned Caracas slums and many normally carefree communities in Vargas state into a vast moonscape. The floods and mudslides left in their wake innumerable stories of loss and tragedy, with the national guard called out in some areas to disperse looters. But there are also tales of heartwarming care, like Ibarra's.

By Dec. 21, the government had recovered 342 bodies, but many more may have died in what is being called one of Latin America's worst natural disasters this century.

"There are unfortunately thousands of people buried in the mud, and the final number we will never know. The forecast that we have could be 25,000 or 30,000 people," Civil Defense national director Angel Rangel told a television network. President Hugo Chávez says some areas, where deep deposits of hardened mud make retrieving some bodies nearly impossible, might simply be left untouched as cemeteries.

All around Caracas, usually just a short freeway drive from Vargas but now separated from it by the steep Avila mountain range where the mudslides originated, volunteers man collection centers for the thousands of homeless.

A military airlift brings hundreds of people every hour to shelters where volunteers provide meals, a bed, medical attention - or simply play games with the children, some of whom lost their parents in the deluge. The Venezuelan Red Cross announced that, except for specialists trained in rescue techniques, it has sufficient volunteers to carry out its activities.

McDonald's lends a hand

Caracas restaurants, like Ibarra's, have joined in the relief program, donating supplies, preparing meals, and opening their kitchens to volunteer cooks. McDonald's alone is donating 40,000 meals a day.

Mr. Chávez, who has dropped his divisive rhetoric of only a week ago when the country was in the heat of a vote on the new Constitution he inspired, says the government's first goal is to make sure every homeless person spends a decent Christmas and New Year's. And he is calling on Venezuela's more fortunate families to open their homes to the dispossessed. The president's wife, Marisabel Chávez, temporarily opened the presidential residence to children who may have been orphaned by the disaster over the weekend, taking in at least 35 children.

In a lengthy television address to the nation Dec. 20, President Chávez said a "reunified" Venezuela was becoming more "efficient" in addressing the emergency each day. "We are not just confronting the situation, we are conquering it," he declared.

The president also said the disaster had revealed the need to develop a "permanent corps of volunteers" to be ready to address similar emergencies in the future.

Better planning needed

But early in 2000, planners will have to start thinking about rebuilding the devastated zones. Already officials are warning that it was largely human disregard for nature that led to much of the destruction, and that redevelopment will have to be better planned and much more controlled if future Vargases are to be avoided.

In his address, Chávez called some of Vargas's developments "criminal" and hinted that legal action might be taken against developers who built without proper environmental permits.

In the meantime, with the government estimating as many as 180,000 people were left homeless, there is a lot of comforting to attend to.

In the well-off Altamira section of town, Boy Scouts hold out hand-lettered cardboard signs announcing to passing cars the day's most crucial needs: powdered milk, packaging tape, mattresses, disinfectant. "Food" is the simple plea on the sign held by Andrés Bahamón, a 13-year-old scout from the city's Quinto Crespo neighborhood.

"As a scout you learn about service and to assist your fellow man, so when all the losses were known it was natural to want to help," he says.

Andrés has been holding a sign on the same corner for the past five days, and says he will continue to do so as long as the need lasts.

Ibarra is also committed to continuing to prepare her soups, at least until Jan. 15, when her school is due to receive a new batch of students.

By then, she plans to have trained cooks at local universities and other institutions to take over whatever soup-making is still necessary.

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