The official death toll from the mid-December disaster stands at about 50,000. Most of the dead were buried under waves of mud, debris and boulders or carried out to sea when massive mud slides swept down a 30-mile stretch of mountains along the densely-populated northern coast..
Another 250,000 people have lost their homes, and some 600,000 more have been displaced or otherwise badly affected. Most survivors are being housed in overcrowded government shelters, their vacant stares and expressionless faces reflecting deep shock and little comprehension of what has happened to them, or how they can possibly start to rebuild their shattered lives.
Having never previously operated in Venezuela, and with the Christmas and millennium holidays just ahead, World Vision nevertheless set about to establish a limited operational presence in the country immediately following the onset of this disaster. Senior Relief Administrator John Yale was soon joined by a small team of specialized programme staff currently engaged in finalizing our "stage one" response, as well as assessing needs, conditions and capacity for establishing a "stage two" programme of expanded presence and operations.
The absence of established relief entities in Venezuela, and the country's relative prosperity within the region, has resulted in a dearth of agencies responding to this crisis. Valuable time has been lost, the level of catastrophe and human loss is unprecedented, and the location and severity of the disaster has blocked direct access to many destruction sites.
All of this does not bode well for the staggering number of Venezuelans - most of them already poor -- who lost everything and are now desperately trying to come to terms with a seemingly hopeless situation.
WV staff in Venezuela are focused on creating an immediate conduit for the flow of emergency assistance to severely affected populations, primarily through a partnering relationship with the Adventist Development Relief Agency (ADRA). The agency is already well-established within the country, and its search and search-and rescue volunteers have been credited with saving hundreds of lives. An initial proposal has just been produced and submitted, together with ADRA, for the provision of basic survival and hygiene items, as well as psychological counseling to 500 neediest families (3,000 people) from one of the hardest-hit coastal areas.
Strategic contacts are also being established with government officials, major donors, the UN, International Red Cross and NGOs, with a view towards enhancing our collaboration and establishing a temporary WV office in Caracas.
In light of these developments and the clear and urgent magnitude of needs, I am hereby making a formal declaration of the Venezuela disaster, in my capacity as Regional Vice President, as a Category II Emergency for the WV Partnership.
The extent and timing of our response to this emergency will of course be directly related to the level of total Partnership commitment, as well as specific opportunities for our engagement, approval of Venezuela's government and potential grant opportunities, leveraged by private cash.
Cleanup, rebuilding and resettlement are expected to take years and cost tens of billions of dollars. Whatever future role we might have in these efforts, our first priority will be the poor - particularly women and children - as the most vulnerable of those affected by this terrible disaster.
I want to encourage all major Support Offices to join in this effort, to pray for the victims, and to help ensure our ongoing and effective intervention on their behalf.