Venezuelans struggle in wake of disaster

BY PJ HELLER | LA GUAIRA, Venezuela | January 4, 2000


LA GUAIRA, Venezuela (Jan. 4, 2000) - Sitting in what once may have been a

street, a woman dips her soapy dishes into a narrow flowing stream of muddy

water.

A few feet away, several children splash playfully in the stream while

another tries to ride his bicycle through the water.

Further up the road -- now just a wide swath of stone, mud and other debris

-- a couple tries to bathe in the same murky water.

Standing in the stream, the man soaps up his body, then dips a red plastic

bucket into the water and, with a shiver, dumps it out over his head. He

repeats this several times until all the soap is washed off. Then he

reaches for a nearby bottle and takes a swig.

Meantime, the woman is sitting on a rock, dipping a large cup into the

water and then pouring it on her arms, neck and under her blouse.

Several women who live at the bottom of the hill and who also have no

running water carry their laundry up the pathway and begin washing their

clothes in the stream. They hang the clothes to dry on a makeshift clothes

line.

The scene resembles a migrant camp with people trudging up and down

carrying what little they own. It is eerily quiet. There are no smiles.

At one point, a family is busy scrubbing the mud from their prized

possession, a somewhat beat-up red Chevrolet.

The owners of the car, along with the other residents of La Guaira who are

out washing and cleaning today, may be the lucky ones. Not only did they

survive the catastrophic floods and mudslides to hit their community in

mid-December, but their homes are still habitable.

Not so for other residents in the state of Vargas, one of the hardest hit

areas in Venezuela when heavy rains unleashed a torrent of water, mud and

rock down the Avila mountainside. More than 11,000 Vargas residents were in

shelters as of Sunday afternoon, government officials reported. Another

80,000 people have been taken to one of the country's other 21 states, they

said.

"The social life of the state of Vargas has been totally broken up," said

Ivan Cedeno, general secretary for Vargas. "It has disappeared."

Armed soldiers man checkpoints on the streets here. A local community

center has been set up by the government as a staging area for relief

efforts. Mud and dirt still fill the streets, some of which remain

impassable. Clouds of dust fill the air; a truck sprays water on the main

thoroughfare in an effort to hold down the particles in the air.

Geologists and architects from as far away as Taiwan have come here to

assess the damage and to determine where it might be safe to rebuild in the

future, said Marlene de Laya, wife of Alfredo Laya, governor of Vargas.

Sitting in a small office at the staging area, a framed poster of Michael

Jordan hanging on the wall, she outlines a long list of issues with which

the government must now deal. Among them: trash, sewerage, electricity,

utilities and schools.

"Right now we don't have a plan," she admitted. "We're waiting for answers

from the experts. Then hopefully we can make a concrete proposal."

Carlos Lanz, coordinator of social emergency programs for the Venezuelan

government, has predicted that reconstruction throughout the country could

take up to 10 years.

Before that can even happen, areas such as La Guaira must first clean up

the tons of dirt, rock and rubble.

In La Guaira, the cleanup appeared to be moving at a snail's pace. People

used wheelbarrows to move dirt from one place to another. There was no sign

of heavy earth moving equipment and portions of some homes that had been

ripped from their uncertain mountain perches remained dangling

precariously. A few children walked along the litter strewn beach area

sifting through the debris trying to salvage anything they could.

There is not yet a coordinated faith-based relief effort, although

individual groups report they are doing what they can to provide

food, water, medicine and clothing as well as shelter to those

affected by the floods.

Don Tatlock, who flew to Venezuela from Honduras to assess the situation

for Church World Service, expressed support for more outreach by the

faith community to help disaster survivors.

Two meetings were held in recent weeks by ecumenical organizations under

the auspices of CLIA (the Latin American Council of Churches) and a relief

plan was to be formulated. Another meeting was scheduled for later this

week, according to Rudemar De Faria of Lutheran World Federation.

Marlene de Laya said she felt the churches could be helping now with "faith

and hope" issues and in the future with implementing the social changes

that the country will require if it is to survive and prosper.

"The emphasis needs to be on teaching people that they can't live where

they had been living because this tragedy could repeat itself," added Dr.

Hernan Cortes, who has been among those providing medical relief to

survivors here.

"The solution is to change the conditions of life for people," he said,

noting that such changes include more that just providing a place to live.

"We also have to provide them with access to jobs, schools and health

care," Cortes said. "It's all related."

Government officials in Vargas agreed, saying that they needed to encourage

economic development in the area to create jobs for residents. Among the

options mentioned was developing tourism along the coastline and farming.

"Until now, the people of this state (Vargas) had their backs to the sea,"

said Pablo Medina of the powerful National Constituent Assembly. "Now we

have the potential to develop into an economic success."

Posted Jan. 4, 2000


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