Recovery may take decade

BY PJ HELLER | CARACAS, Venezuela | December 29, 1999


CARACAS, Venezuela (Dec. 29, 1999) -- Recovery efforts from Venezuela's worst

natural disaster ever could take up to 10 years and cost untold billions of

dollars, a government official predicted here Tuesday.

"The cost is unimaginable," said Carlos Lanz, coordinator of social emergency

programs for the South American country. "There is just no way to figure out

the cost at this time."

Lanz said estimates of five to six months for recovery efforts were

"unrealistic" and that it would "probably be take 10 years to go through the

complete reconstruction phase."

The pace of relief efforts, meantime, was picking up as international flights

began arriving again at SimÛn BolĖvar International Airport near Caracas. The

airport was operating at 20 percent of capacity on Monday and was expected to

be back to normal by the end of the week.

Faith-based organizations under the umbrella of the Consuelo Latino-Americano

de Iglesias (CLAI) were meeting this week and next to map strategy.

Assessments in the affected regions -- primarily Vargas state, where the

government said 50.7 percent of the population lost its homes, and in Federal

District in Caracas, where it said 27.7 percent of the population was made

homeless -- were getting under way by faith-based organizations.

"The majority of churches don't have information (they need)," said Rudelmar

De Faria of Lutheran World Federation. "Nobody knows exactly what's happening

in the communities."

According to government figures, a total of 234 shelters were open, housing

more than 35,000 residents. The government has estimated that 140,000 people

were left homeless by the raging floods and mudslides and that as many as

30,000 may have been killed.

De Faria reported that a provisional emergency committee was formed Monday

from among 40 representatives. They represented groups including the

Presbyterian Church in Venezuela, Lutherans and Pacto (Pentecostals) and

several non-governmental organizations.

De Faria arrived from El Salvador on Monday and began touring the stricken

areas.

Don Tatlock, who works in Honduras with the Christian Commission for

Development and Church World Service (CWS) also flew to Caracas to conduct

assessments. He met Tuesday with officials from Centro de Educacion Popular

Excario Sesa Lugan (CEPEXSOL), one of the Venezuelan partners of CWS, and

toured some of the heavily damaged areas near Caracas.

Lanz said evacuation of residents from stricken areas was nearly completed.

The next phase of the government's efforts was to try to prevent any

epidemics, especially among the shelter population.

Asked if there had been any reports of diseases among displaced residents,

Lanz replied, "Fortunately, no."

But he stressed that Venezuela was still in dire need of food, potable water

and "basic survival needs."

He expressed appreciation to the nations which have poured in massive amounts

of disaster aid.

"Many countries have supported us," he said. "In fact, Spain last night made

an agreement to help us. It's wonderful to receive all this support."

He said the third phase of the government's efforts would be reconstruction

and relocation of affected residents, as well as health and education issues.

Survivors in the hard-hit Vargas state, for instance, are expected to be

relocated to the country's interior.

The government, meantime, continued to defend its handling of the disaster.

It also said it would investigate why shantytowns and luxury apartment

buildings were allowed to be illegally constructed in areas vulnerable to

floods and mudslides.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez initially blamed the "criminal

irresponsibility" of "corrupt" previous governments for allowing the

construction.

In a statement in Tuesday's edition of the El Nacional newspaper, Chavez said

every Venezuelan -- including himself -- was responsible for the destruction.

"We are all guilty," he said.

Government officials have dismissed claims that the government failed to warn

residents of the impending danger because they were too concerned with a

referendum that day on a new constitution.

Posted Dec. 29, 1999


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