Venezuela

In Venezuela, relief agencies bring aid, plans for handling future disasters

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Stephanie Kriner, Staff Writer, DisasterRelief.org
VALENCIA, Venezuela -- A light drizzle began as a cargo plane filled with relief supplies arrived in this quiet airport just before sunrise. Closed to commercial flights since the torrential rains that spawned Venezuela's worst disaster in 100 years, the Valencia airport, located 50 miles from Caracas, has become a depot for relief supplies and flood evacuees.
Surrounding the airport are the steep, barren mountains where violent mudslides raged down gulleys to bury villages, leaving an unknown number dead or missing. "They're still looking for people and they're still finding them," said Al Haggerty, a member of an American Red Cross delegation dispatched to the region to help assess the vast damages and needs of flood and mudslide victims. "However, there may be a number of people who simply were washed out to sea and we may never know what happened to them."

There could be as many as 25,000 or 30,000 people dead, according to Civil Defense National Director Angel Rangel. Vargas state, an area with a population of 350,000, bore the brunt of the catastrophe. Crowded shantytowns perched on steep slopes of the lush Avila mountain were swept away, leaving tall buildings at the foot of the mountain surrounded by a sea of mud and debris.

According to Langdon Greenhalgh, one of the American Red Cross delegates on the ground in Venezuela, evacuations continue from the hard-hit state of Vargas, just north of the capital city of Caracas, and other regions in the disaster zone. Most of the affected coastal areas are without potable water, power, and communications. More than 68,000 people have been airlifted or bused from the disaster zone to the capital, Caracas, and other cities.

In some instances, families have resisted government instructions to evacuate. One little boy told an American Red Cross worker that he had stayed in the disaster zone because his father refused to leave, even though the family had lost their home and most of their belongings to the floods. Cuddling a hamster as he and his family were finally evacuated by helicopter, the child told the American Red Cross worker that the pet was all he had left from his former home.

As relief workers struggle to grasp the full scope of the disaster, the military continues to shuffle the thousands who were left homeless into government-run shelters and barracks. But many areas in the disaster zone remain inaccessible, and no one knows how many people may be stranded in muddy villages without fresh water or food.

In a unique search and rescue attempt, the government sent out about 300 members of a local dirt bike club to search Vargas, the hardest-hit state, for missing survivors.

Relief Effort Focuses on Present and Future Disasters

Venezuela's floods have brought attention to its need to prepare for more disasters in the future. Caracas, located over a fault zone, experiences a major earthquake once about every 40 years, and deforestation along the shoreline's steep mountains will likely lead to more frequent and more severe flooding and mudslides.

President Hugo Chavez said the killer mudslides were a disaster waiting to happen, and he blamed the "criminal irresponsibility" of "corrupt" previous governments that allowed construction of illegal shantytowns on dangerous terrain. "There were governments violating the laws of nature. Nature has its own laws," he said.

While helping the country recover, the American Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and other Red Cross societies, hope to provide Venezuela with a plan for dealing with future disasters. For example, the American Red Cross potentially could help Venezuela develop an early warning system that would alert authorities to evacuate residents of low-lying areas before flooding becomes deadly. "When the water came down, it came down as a total surprise," Haggerty said.

The American Red Cross also hopes to help Venezuela develop a tracing system to link families separated during disasters and to establish a database to find missing persons. During the rush to evacuate, many families were seperated. And scores of people around the world have loved ones in Venezuela and are anxious to hear news of their safety.

Reconstruction: A Slow, Costly Process

Government officials said reconstruction would run into the billions of dollars and take several years. Economists predicted the disaster would aggravate a deep economic recession in the oil-rich country of 23 million.

Most of Vargas state, an area about half the size of Rhode Island, would have to be razed and turned into parks, officials said. Residents would be moved to new settlements, away from the coast, that would be based around agricultural communities and small business parks on military bases and farms donated by the government and landowners. The government also plans to donate building materials to help put their lives back together.

DisasterRelief.org is a unique partnership between the American Red Cross, IBM and CNN dedicated to providing information about disasters and their relief operations worldwide. The three-year-old website is a leading disaster news source and also serves as a conduit for those wishing to donate to disaster relief operations around the globe through the international Red Cross movement.

All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. 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.

The American Red Cross is dedicated to helping make families and communities safer at home and around the world. The Red Cross is a volunteer-led humanitarian organization that annually provides almost half the nation's blood supply, trains nearly 12 million people in vital life-saving skills, mobilizes relief to victims in more than 60,000 disasters nationwide, provides direct health services to 2.5 million people, assists international disaster and conflict victims in more than 20 countries, and transmits more than 1.4 million emergency messages to members of the Armed Forces and their families. If you would like information on Red Cross services and programs please contact your local Red Cross.

© Copyright 1999, The American National Red Cross. All Rights Reserved.

DisasterRelief
DisasterRelief.org is a unique partnership between the American Red Cross, IBM and CNN dedicated to providing information about disasters and their relief operations worldwide. The three-year-old website is a leading disaster news source and also serves as a conduit for those wishing to donate to disaster relief operations around the globe through the international Red Cross movement. American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. 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. The American Red Cross is dedicated to helping make families and communities safer at home and around the world. The Red Cross is a volunteer-led humanitarian organization that annually provides almost half the nation's blood supply, trains nearly 12 million people in vital life-saving skills, mobilizes relief to victims in more than 60,000 disasters nationwide, provides direct health services to 2.5 million people, assists international disaster and conflict victims in more than 20 countries, and transmits more than 1.4 million emergency messages to members of the Armed Forces and their families. If you would like information on Red Cross services and programs please contact your local Red Cross. © Copyright, The American National Red Cross. All Rights Reserved.