Venezuela: Poor hit hardest

Aftermath of Caribbean storm tests Chávez's regime

Some 180,000 people are homeless after last week's floods - Venezuela's worst natural disaster in 32 years.

Howard LaFranchi, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CARACAS - Evelyn Oropeza's story of how her house was carried away by the extensive flooding that socked northern Venezuela last week is sadly familiar in a region that has been hit by inordinately heavy storms over the past two years.

Now camped out in a makeshift shelter with some 3,000 other newly homeless, Mrs. Oropeza says one minute everything was normal. Her family was watching the results of Wednesday's vote on a new constitution from their house in the San José de Cotiza section of the Venezuelan capital. Suddenly a popping noise told them that more than just the pelting rain was threatening outside.

The popping was the sound of the cemented hillside opposite their house preparing to give out. "We just got to higher ground when an explosion of water and mud took everything away," she says. "We lost all of our things, but at least we are all alive."

Tragically, that is more than many Venezuelan families have to hold onto after the storms. At least 500 people are dead, and some 7,000 missing. More than 180,000 people are homeless.

Last October, hurricane Mitch parked over Honduras, Nicaragua, and parts of other Central American countries and spawned flooding that killed more than 9,000 people and set the area back 30 years. Earlier this year severe flooding hit Mexico's southern Atlantic coast.

The rains here this past week have caused Venezuela's worst natural disaster since an earthquake in 1967 officials say.

Round-the-clock television coverage of the disaster shows devastating scenes of urbanized canyons, riverside neighborhoods and coastal plains turned to raging torrents with collapsed houses, apartment buildings buried in mud up to the third floor, cars smashed and tossed like discarded aluminum cans.

As the sun returned this weekend, massive clean-up operations are under way to clear the mud that has invaded homes, as well as filled streets and urban infrastructure. Water and sewer pipes filled with mud can be plugged as it turns hard as cement. The only highway serving Caracas's seaside international airport suffered heavy damage and more than 10,000 homeless are now sheltered there. All flights, except for emergency service, have been cancelled until further notice.

The story in Venezuela is familiar. In almost any part of the world, the amount of rainfall received here over the last week would have caused important damage. But just as in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Mexico, inattention to environmental stress and haphazard development, have exacerbated exposure to tragedy.

Since the last time Venezuela experienced rains even close to those that hit last week, experts note, the country's population has boomed, and cities have spread across environmentally fragile areas such as steep hillsides, streambeds, and oceanfront lowlands. As usual, the worst affected were poor families who built houses in the most precarious places.

Just as other Latin countries have learned about themselves through El Niño and then La Niña, Venezuela now knows it is poorly prepared to confront natural disasters.

In Venezuela's case, responsibility for the extent of the tragedy must be shared by the government and individuals, observers say. The environmental ministry has extensive information on the susceptibility to flooding of the very areas that suffered the worst damage, says Luis Oswaldo Báez of the United Nations Disaster Office here. "Yet the population is allowed to grow in these areas." At the same time a population that considers disaster response a governmental function must change its thinking and become involved in disaster prevention and mitigation, he adds.

The storm's devastating aftermath is a stiff test for President Hugo Chávez, who has remained wildly popular a year after his election by promising big results from a paternalistic government.

"This crisis is going to reveal the inefficiencies of this government," says Alberto Franceschi, a central opposition figure to Chávez and a probable presidential candidate against Chávez in elections that will take place in late February 2000 as part of implementation of a new constitution approved last week.

But the disaster will not necessarily end up a black mark for Chávez.

He has assigned the military to a 24-hour emergency response, evacuating the stranded and digging out the mud-engulfed. He has also sent 1,000 paratroopers (as he once was) to get into remote or unreachable parts of the Caribbean-fronting state of Vargas - where the airport is located - to rescue stranded people and take in supplies.

The astute politician has assigned the presidential jet to airlift the storm's homeless and injured out of critical zones - with TV cameras on hand to capture the drama - while his wife, Marisabel de Chávez, has rolled up her sleeves and dedicated herself fulltime to assisting disaster victims.

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