BALTIMORE (Dec. 20, 1999) -- Avalanches of water, mud, and boulders,
triggered by heavy rains, have killed as many as 10,000 and stranded
hundreds of thousands more Venezuelans in what government and relief
officials are calling the country's worst natural calamity in history.
Entire communities have been erased, people are wandering the beaches
without food and water, and the mud and seas are overflowing with
The estimated death toll has risen to 10,000 but could rise as high
as 25,000 since entire communities and port cities were swept away as
large chunks of the coastline fell away. More than 150,000 have been
Most of the dead remain buried under mud, and survivors are searching
for food and water have begun looting out of desperation. Some 25
nations worldwide have offered assistance, including the U.S., which
is rushing aid to the South American country, from which the U.S.
gets most of its petroleum.
Church World Service is coordinating with a partner, Sepexol, a Pentecostal group, to support the relocation of survivors in vulnerable coastal areas to more stable Barquisimento.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are also responding locally. "Some church members, sadly, were victims," said J. Patrick Reese, welfare service emergency response officer. He added that the U.S.-based church members were currently planning a response as well.
A Venezuelan flood aid center has been opened in Miami, Fla. Many
U.S. based relief groups are mobilizing a response by trying to
locate their partner organizations in Venezuela and beginning a
The International Red Cross is responding to emergency needs,
especially medical needs because the risk of dengue, cholera, gangrene outbreaks is very high.
A group of Venezuelan students at Grand Valley State University in
Grand Rapids, MI began a fundraising drive immediately after the
disaster, said Jerry Dystra, spokesperson for Grand Rapids-based
Funds raised by the students will be channeled through International
Aid, which is accepting monetary donations from churches,
individuals, and other organizations. "We are also looking into
getting a local partner in Venezuela," said Dykstra.
The situation is still described as nightmarish and chaotic, and
survivors praying for the return of their missing loved ones hold out
little hope of finding them alive. Bodies remain buried in the mud or
were washed out to sea by the wave of earth and rocks that crashed
Rains continued through Sunday, hampering rescue and relief operations.
Coffins are already in short supply, and most of the nation's largest
cemeteries remain buried under mud. Ice and lime are being used to
slow down the decomposition of bodies, and survivors who have spend
several days in the mountains without food are still being rescued.
Worst hit was the coastal state of Vargas, population 350,000, where
mudslides buried entire villages. There has been an exodus of
thousands of refugees by air, land and sea, which officials are
comparing to a war zone.
Response officials have reported that most of Vargas state, located
just north of the capital Caracas, will likely have to be razed, and
could take ten years to rebuild. Damages, initially estimated at $2
billion, are rising.
Relief planes are jetting supplies into the country, and helicopters
are rescuing hundreds of stranded survivors from rooftops. President
Hugo Chavez Frias has dispatched hundreds of paratroopers to rescue
survivors and to provide food and medicine. A former army colonel, he
has taken command of the relief and rescue operations.
The government launched an air-and-sea military rescue operation
involving 12,000 troops, about 40 helicopters, and several warships.
Navy ships are taking people away from the disaster zone, with
priority to the injured and elderly. Thousands are still trudging
along beaches with hopes of being rescued.
Paratroopers are being dropped onto remote beaches to provide relief
supplies to those in need.
Thousands of people remain completely cut off from communications,
and a shortage of running water and electricity outages are still
widespread. The U.S. has offered two planes and nine helicopters.
Medical care and medicines remain among the most pressing needs, fear
of disease is rising, and survivors are beginning to clamor for water
and food. The last disaster suffered by Venezuela was an earthquake
that killed some 300 people in 1967. This disaster also surpasses the
9,000 killed in Central America by Hurricane Mitch last year. Until
this, Mitch was the biggest tragedy this century in Latin America.
Local news sources are reporting greater death tolls and numbers of
homeless people. The country's main daily newspaper and
VHeadline.com, an electronic news publication, report many thousands
more may be dead. The mayor of La Guaira estimated 25,000 dead in
that port city.
Most of the landslides occurred when torrential rains caused large
swaths of land to crash down from mountains separating Caracas from
the Caribbean coast.
Many of the dead and wounded were dwelling in shacks made of tin or
wood at the foot of Mount Avila. In the wake of the disaster, many
Venezuelans have expressed anger at their government for allowing
large numbers of people to build homes in vulnerable places at the
foot of Mount Avila.
The Venezuelan government and relief agencies alike were taken by
surprise with the magnitude of the disaster. "The level of
destruction is incredible," said Jonathon Frerichs of Lutheran World
Wednesday, the day the rains were the worst, was the same day
Venezuelans went to the polls to overwhelmingly approve Chavez's
proposal for a new constitution.
Posted Dec. 20, 1999
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