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Venezuelans face unhappy New Year

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

CATUCHE, Venezuela (Dec. 29, 1999) -- Antonio Ramirez returned home for the

first time Tuesday and like many of his neighbors before him, found little

was left of his creekside residence.

His was just one of the tens of thousands of homes destroyed in Venezuela by

torrential rains and mudslides earlier this month. An estimated 30,000 people

were killed in what is being called Venezuela's worst natural disaster in

history.

The once docile Catuche Creek, which runs through his area and which he said

had been the target of cleanup efforts since 1993, became a raging torrent,

smashing down homes like Tinker Toys and leaving tree trunks, huge rocks

and boulders in its wake.

Exact numbers of fatalities, damage and those left homeless are still

difficult to come by.

Ramirez said one person was killed and some 75 homes were destroyed in his

area while more than 700 homes were leveled in other parts of Catuche.

Other estimates ranged as high as 2,000 homes destroyed throughout Catuche

and a total of 50 dead in the area.

What is clear is that nearly two weeks after the storm decimated parts of the

South American country, much of Catuche remains in ruins, the smell of death

is still evident and the creek continues to flow.

Residents, meantime, wonder what is in store for them in what promises to be

an unhappy new year.

Ramirez, who headed a community group in his area of Catuche, now finds

himself heading a makeshift shelter for 30 families at the Escuela Nacional

Esteban Gil Borges. Other families affected by the storm have gone to live

with relatives while residents from elsewhere in Catuche have sought refuge

with friends, family or in other shelters.

The families at Esteban Gil Borges include 35 women, 22 men and 23 children

ranging in age up to 13. They made it to the shelters with whatever they

could grab from their homes. In some cases, Ramirez said, it was just the

clothes on their back.

Donations of food and an excess of clothing -- which they plan to donate to

others -- have been provided primarily by a Jesuit church group, the mayor's

office and the municipality. Ramirez said what is needed most now is more

food, potable water and medicine and medical supplies.

Crowded into rooms in the school and sleeping on mattresses on the floor, the

families have to be out of the school by Jan. 8, two days before classes are

scheduled to resume.

"They don't know where they're going to be going yet," Ramirez said through

an interpreter. "They don't know what's going to happen."

Some 100 people from Catuche housed at another local school also have to

leave by the same date. They were advised that they would be moved by the

government to military installations, where they would be housed for up to

four months, until permanent arrangements could be made for them.

Ramirez's goal is to keep the residents from his area together by relocating

them nearby. One series of buildings being considered would cost about

$300,000 (US), the equivalent of $190 million in Venezuelan currency. The

residents would have to either purchase that building or another site or have

it donated.

"They're hoping the government will come through to build the buildings,"

Ramirez said, adding that residents are willing to provide the

construction labor.

As residents whose homes survived the creek's onslaught shoveled out dirt and

rock Tuesday and tried to salvage what little they could, life went on pretty

much as normal just a few blocks away.

Street vendors plied their wares, men worked on their automobiles, women had

their hair done in beauty salons and children skateboarded down the streets.

In downtown Caracas, cars and buses jammed the streets and people gathered in

a festive mood in Plaza BolĖvar.

Ramirez, who said he returned home for the first time since the rains came

Dec. 15, walked dejectedly through the remains of his house.

Wearing rubber boots to wade across the now shallow water, he glanced around

at what had once been his house. Whole walls were gone, exposing almost the

entire inside of the house. Little, if anything, appeared to be salvageable.

He just shook his head sadly as he walked away.

Posted Dec. 29, 1999


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