In December 1999, Venezuelans were far too preoccupied with the approaching Christmas season and a new constitution to heed the potential dangers of days of unyielding rain. Millions of people living along bloating rivers and saturated mountainsides failed to evacuate. When the mountains gave way and the rivers merged with the sea, entire communities were buried by massive mudslides or swept away in violent waters. As news of the ongoing tragedy reached the rest of the country, people wanted to help, but they did not know where to begin.
A chaos of bodies, sirens and cries for help filled the streets of the disaster-struck region in Vargas state and Caracas. Ordinary citizens, rescue workers and emergency vehicles seemed to be going in every direction, with nobody aware of what anybody else was doing. The government called on the military to reach disaster victims by air as relief workers struggled to cross flooded and washed away streets with truckloads of food, water and medicines. Disaster survivors who had walked dozens of miles to escape the mud and floods arrived in crowded Caracas hospitals and shelters seeking food, water, medical attention and a place to sleep. Nobody was expecting a disaster of this magnitude.
When the water receded, more stunning news spread throughout the shell-shocked country: As many as 30,000 lives had been lost. Thousands more had their homes and livelihoods swept under mountains of mud. Venezuelans would spend the Christmas holidays mourning the dead.
By the time the waters ebbed, emergency workers, relief volunteers and government officials had begun to get a grip on the needs of victims, but the task of rebuilding still seemed overwhelming. Despite a history of floods and earthquakes, the 1999 mudslides presented new challenges to Venezuela. Looking back more than a year later, officials say they had never dealt with a disaster of that magnitude. Unfortunately, due to population growth in risky areas, more major disasters may rock Venezuela in the future.
American Red Cross Shares Disaster Expertise
Every decade since 1950, a combination of floods, earthquakes and manmade hazards have bombarded Venezuela, according to Jennifer Peavey, head of programs for the American Red Cross in Caracas. "The difference of the disaster in 1999 was that the area affected was immense and concentrated in regions plagued with urban sprawl, uncontrolled growth on the hillsides and along riverbanks in areas of high risk," she said.
Despite government efforts to move people away from the most dangerous areas since the 1999 disaster, thousands remain at risk. Geologists warn that Caracas is due for a major earthquake soon, and mudslides and flooding remain a constant threat along the country's denuded hillsides and rivers.
The mudslides of December 1999 left the country even more vulnerable than ever before. "The enormous number of mudslide victims and resulting impact on the country has left a mark. There continues to a vulnerable population," said Claudia Carrillo of the Venezuela Red Cross.
The American Red Cross is working to prepare the Venezuelan Red Cross for the inevitable. As part of an overall relief and recovery plan that began in the aftermath of the mudslides, the American Red Cross is training the Venezuelan Red Cross in disaster preparedness and response.
The training could not be more timely, said Manuel Nieves, an emergency services official with the Venezuelan Red Cross. Lack of communication between government officials, relief organizations and emergency personnel led to chaos in the aftermath of the mudslides. "Everybody was working independently - the Red Cross, the firemen, the military - and nobody knew what the other was doing," he said.
At the Red Cross headquarters in Caracas, volunteers who showed up to help found a building abuzz with people, but nobody could tell them what to do. The Red Cross had neglected to put someone in charge of managing volunteers. Donations were lost because there was nobody to track them. A benefactor, hoping to help, sent 3,000 bags of microwave brownie mix - useless for helping disaster victims who had no homes, let alone microwaves. The Venezuelan Red Cross, which prior to the mudslides had concentrated its limited resources on developing first aid and rescue operations, had never confronted such a large disaster.
Luckily, the International Red Cross Movement was able to help, offering support to more than 1,000 local volunteers. As part of the Movement, the American Red Cross arrived immediately after the disaster and is still there today, helping the Venezuelan Red Cross build its own disaster program.
"The American Red Cross is recognized as an expert in disaster planning and preparedness. As a result we are teaching the Venezuelan Red Cross how to incorporate these important steps into their own disaster response plan," said Gisla Dewey, an American Red Cross disaster response expert in Caracas.
With the help of the American Red Cross, the Venezuelan society will create a permanent program that could make the difference between a minor and major disaster. "Venezuela is a vulnerable country. More dangerous than the risks associated with its geography is the absence of a National Disaster Plan," said Carrillo, who is being mentored by Dewey to take over the disaster program after the American Red Cross leaves. "Without such a plan, the chaos that follows a disaster becomes much more dangerous to Venezuelans than the disaster itself."
The first step in crafting a disaster response plan is to complete a risk analysis, Dewey said. To complete the analysis, the Red Cross is assessing the disaster risks and needs of communities throughout Venezuela. Using methods implemented by the American Red Cross in the United States, Venezuelan Red Cross volunteers are gathering information from local authorities and community leaders.
Once the information is gathered, the Red Cross can prepare in advance for whatever tragedy that may occur. For example, the organization will learn how many volunteers to recruit depending on the likely disaster and number of people that could be affected in a particular area. Or, the information will be used to make predictions about how many shelters would be needed in the event of a disaster. "Everything is determined by its risks or potential for disaster," Dewey said.
After determining the risks, Dewey will guide the Venezuela Red Cross toward developing a disaster response plan. The plan will outline the services that the Red Cross may provide during a disaster, such as first aid, mental health counseling or family reunification's.
While helping the Venezuelan Red Cross create a disaster preparedness plan, Dewey also is teaching the society to recruit and train volunteers and to formulate a standard disaster program. In the United States, all volunteers receive the same training and every American Red Cross chapter follows the same procedures when responding to a disaster. This is the strategy that Dewey is bringing to the Venezuelan Red Cross. "In order to have an efficient disaster preparedness program, it needs to be standardized," she said.
More Disasters Lurk in Venezuela's Future
The 1999 mudslides served as a wake-up call for Venezuelans who were accustomed to relatively harmless annual floods. Hillside shantytown residents are used to picking up their shacks and moving every time the rainy season comes. But such a massive disaster was unimaginable. Even after days of torrential rains saturated the unstable ground beneath their homes, many residents living along crumbling hillsides did not consider moving. Now, people flee with their children and belongings every time it rains.
When swarms of panic-stricken mudslide victims dashed down the hillsides to escape the tides of mud sweeping away their homes, rumors of an apocalypse spread. The end of the world seemed more realistic to many people than a mountain of mud racing down the hills.
However, more people now realize that Venezuela is a disaster waiting to happen. Denuded hillsides threaten more deadly mudslides, easily triggered by rainfall or an earthquake. During the last rainy season, last November, at least three people died, but the weather put thousands on edge. "It's very risky even if there is not rain because the soil is very soft," Nieves said.
A major earthquake also looms in Caracas' future, according to top Venezuelan seismologists. "The geologists are studying it, and they say it will happen in the next 10 years," Nieves said. Herbert Rendon, head of the Venezuelan Seismological Research Institute, predicted a magnitude-6.5 quake would hit between the year 2012 and 2027.
The last major earthquake to hit Caracas was in July 1967 when a 6.7-magnitude temblor left 300 dead and 2,000 injured. Although buildings are safer than they were in the 1960s, more people are at risk in Caracas and its environs than ever before.
The population has grown since then, and millions have built their homes along denuded hillsides and unstable ground that that is prone to liquefy during an earthquake. "People are not considering the risks when they build their homes," Nieves said.
The Red Cross is taking steps to prevent another catastrophe, but with every rainy season or seismologic prediction, the sense of urgency grows. "We are just starting to learn about disaster preparedness from the American Red Cross," Nieves said. "I hope we have enough time [to prepare before the next disaster hits]."
All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. The Red Cross also supplies nearly half of the nation's lifesaving blood. This, too, is made possible by generous voluntary donations. To help the victims of disaster, you may make a secure online credit card donation or call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669) or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Or you may send your donation to your local Red Cross or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013. To donate blood, please call 1-800-GIVE-LIFE (1-800-448-3543), or contact your local Red Cross to find out about upcoming blood drives.
© Copyright 2001 The American National Red Cross. All Rights Reserved.
- American Red Cross
- All American Red Cross disaster assistance is provided at no cost, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. The Red Cross also supplies nearly half of the nation's lifesaving blood. This, too, is made possible by generous voluntary donations. To help the victims of disaster, you may make a secure online credit card donation or call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669) or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Or you may send your donation to your local Red Cross or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013. To donate blood, please call 1-800-GIVE-LIFE (1-800-448-3543), or contact your local Red Cross to find out about upcoming blood drives. © Copyright, The American National Red Cross. All Rights Reserved.