Venezuela

In wake of disaster, Venezuelans demonstrate resourcefulness

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Written by Cynthia Long, Managing Editor, DisasterRelief.org
Four days after torrential rains and mudslides devastated the northern Caribbean coast in Venezuela, Peggy Mott, an American Red Cross (ARC) disaster specialist, was dispatched to the region. Over a period of three weeks, Mott and a team of ARC delegates began to lay the groundwork for a relief plan of action that is still being carried out. It was an experience that taught Mott valuable lessons about providing disaster relief, but what impressed her most during her assignment was the fortitude of the Venezuelan people.

On December 19, Mott arrived in the capital city of Caracas as northern Venezuela reeled in the aftermath of what was being called the country's "worst disaster of the century." After days of heavy mid-December rains, flash floods raged through nine northern states and massive mudslides destroyed thousands of homes. "It was like the end of the world," said Adriana Avendano, a 30-year-old mother of three whose mountainside shanty was buried by a mudslide.

Peggy Mott, center, delivers relief supplies to a Caracas orphanage. Venezuela declared a state of emergency and international relief agencies, including ARC, rushed to the region to help the country recover. Mott was the "Information and Planning" member of the ARC team, and was responsible for setting up an ARC office and for assisting with the development of immediate, emergency and long-term relief plans. Beyond preparing a functioning office for the delegates, Mott's job consisted mainly of "gathering intelligence and identifying the most pressing needs of the survivors."

One of the first steps in identifying needs is to tour the disaster zone, and Mott visited the states of Falcon and Vargas, areas hard hit by flooding and mudslides. "The mudslides, dozens of them, totally washed away huge sections of the mountainside in Vargas," she said. "It was horrible to see the swaths of brown in what used to be lush, green forest, and there was no way of knowing how many homes were buried in the debris."

While Vargas was completely devastated and all of its residents were evacuated from the region, some areas of Falcon were spared and the government set up shelters away from the destruction. One was established in a government-supported casino. "They moved all of the gaming tables and slot machines to the side to make room for cots," Mott said. "There was no gambling allowed while the shelter was in operation and I assume the government lost a great deal of money because of it, but sheltering the survivors was obviously the first priority."

President Hugo Chavez commanded much of the relief effort and his troops diligently crossed swollen rivers and climbed the towering Avila Mountain range to find people trapped beneath mud and rubble.

The once pristine, white sand beaches of Venezuela's Caribbean coast are now awash in a sea of mud.

One man who was trapped in his collapsed house with his family, some of them dead, called a radio station on his mobile phone. As he pleaded for help, Chavez personally came on the line and urged him to stay calm.

Residents with property unaffected by the disaster were just as eager to contribute to the relief effort and many willingly housed survivors in their own homes. In some "home shelters," families had accepted as many as 60 people. "The residents of the communities were amazingly self-sufficient and weren't waiting around for relief supplies to arrive," Mott said. "They never had very much to begin with and were more than willing to share what they did have with their neighbors who lost everything." When relief supplies did arrive, residents of a community isolated by floodwaters set up a boat transfer system to deliver the goods.

Finding potable water is usually a challenge after a disaster, but that was another problem tackled by the Venezuelan people. Regional beverage distributors, such as the Polar beer company and a local Coca-Cola plant, halted operations and began bottling water to send out to the affected areas.

Red Cross delegates and members of the community help unload relief supplies to be distributed to families still living in the disaster zone. Providing food to the survivors, however, was a growing concern, and ARC responded by shipping 20,000 food parcels to the region from Panama. The team came up with a culturally sensitive package that would provide a supplemental supply of food to a family of five for two weeks.

Each parcel contained 13 lbs. of corn flour, 13 lbs. of rice, a half gallon of vegetable oil, four and a half gallons of pasta, 9 lbs. of black beans and 4 lbs. of sardines, which, according to Mott, is a very inexpensive staple in Venezuela.

The food distribution was led by the Venezuelan Red Cross (VRC), which also embodies the tenacity of the Venezuelan people. Seventeen of the country's 23 branches are responding to the emergency. VRC, with the help of other national Red Cross societies, will provide 50,000 families with emergency food, medicine and other relief supplies for the next three months. VRC volunteers are being trained to give health presentations in schools and shelters to promote a preventative health campaign, and some are participating in a psychological support program for children affected by the disaster.

Venezuela is not a country that experiences catastrophic disasters, according to Mott, and VRC did not have an active disaster services program. But the staff and volunteers were tireless in their efforts to work with ARC and other Red Cross societies to develop logistical expertise and to carry out a large-scale relief effort, she said.

Even the children chipped in, like these boys who helped distribute bedding to other residents of San Martin de Porras Elementary School shelter.

Although the determination of the Venezuelan people was impressive to Mott, she was also touched by their gratitude. "On the flight down to Venezuela, the passengers and crew kept thanking us for our assistance," she said. "Also, upon returning from Falcon, the VRC youth volunteers came to the ARC office and, unsolicited, began serenading us - what an ending to that day!"

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.

=A9 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.