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Need escalates in Venezuela

BY SUSAN KIM | Baltimore, MD | December 22, 1999

Emergency aid funds are offering some relief for hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans left homeless by massive flooding and mudslides last week.

Disaster response officials report that monetary donations are the best way to help flood survivors as the needs escalate following the country's worst natural calamity in history.

The death toll could be as high as 50,000, though the count will likely never be final as so many bodies remain buried in the mud or lost at sea. The terrifying mud avalanches plummeted from the 8,300-foot Avila Mountains, sweeping away entire communities and washing away beaches.

Since communications have slowly become possible, relief groups are responding with emergency aid, primarily emergency funding but also relief supplies and medicines.

The National Assembly of Venezuela has declared a state of emergency for the federal district of Caracas and eight states. Serious damage has been inflicted on housing, transportation, electricity, and communications.

Response groups are focused on meeting emergency needs of up to 250,000 people left homeless by the disaster. Action by Churches Together has provided $17,000 from its Rapid Response Fund, and is coordinating with the Pentecostal Evangelical Union and the Episcopal Church to conduct assessments and coordinate a longer term response.

Many of those left homeless were from shanty towns perched precariously on steep mountainsides.

The Week of Compassion giving program, coordinated through the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) also rushed emergency funding to its Venezuelan partner, the Pentecostal Evangelical Union (UPEV) for the purchase of emergency food, shelter, and other humanitarian assistance. UPEV has already established 14 local response teams.

Since most goods can still be purchased in the country, and since most major airports are still closed, relief groups are focused on providing monetary aid that offers direct and immediate relief to survivors.

A massive evacuation effort continues in the Vargas state, hardest-hit by the mudslides, where nearly 70,000 people have already left. The military continues to lead evacuation efforts, but response groups are now able to provide assistance with the rescue and relief for the thousands of people in need.

Evacuees are being moved to more stable areas away from the coast. Among the U.S.-based response groups assisting in rescue and relief operations are Church World Service (CWS) and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). ADRA is supporting a rescue team to save people in the Vargas state. ADRA has also set up a temporary reception site in Caracas to provide food, clothing, and water to hundreds of people and CWS is supplying assistance to survivors through local organizations.

"Most people being rescued have no food, and have lost all their belongings," said Rodolfo Escobar, ADRA Venezuela director. "Plus many crops were washed away. The government sees a real shortage of food."

Response leaders report that the best way for people to help is to make cash contributions to one of the many organizations responding, so that food and other relief items can be purchased locally or shipped in bulk.

Church World Service (CWS) has issued an emergency appeal for $20,000, which is likely to be expanded. In an initial response, CWS sent blankets and mattresses for 800 people who have been evacuated to the town of Barquisimeto. Distribution of these materials will be coordinated through CWS Venezuelan partners Centro de Educacion Popular Excario Sesa Lugan (CEPEXSOL) and Caracas a Asociacion Civil Paz y Vida.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) has responded to that appeal with an initial $10,000. PDA is working with partner churches in Venezuela to assess needs and determine what additional assistance they will be providing, as is the Episcopal Diocese of Caracas.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has committed an initial $100,000 toward emergency relief efforts. "Just as Hurricane Mitch ravaged Central America a little more than a year ago, this crisis has affected some of the poorest people in Venezuela," said Kenneth Hackett, CRS executive director.

World Vision is also accepting monetary donations to send relief items.

Baptist World Aid is sending $5,000 to the National Baptist Convention of Venezuela. Like other faith-based groups, Baptist World Aid plans a more extensive response after this initial effort. "I know that the funds we have already sent will need to be multiplied many times if we are to provide the kind of support needed," he said.

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.

When communication is possible -- mostly from Caracas -- survivors are indicating that the disaster is monumental and the needs are staggering. "The situation is very bad. We have about 250,000 homeless people. The worst place is Vargas state, also Miranda state," said resident Alfonso Marino Caamano via e-mail. "They are talking about 25,000 deaths in Vargas alone."

"We need water, medicines, child's milk -- and everything," he added.

Susan Ryan, coordinator of PDA, was able to communicate with two missionaries, Carlos and Deborah Clugy-Soto, in Venezuela via e-mail. They said that many beaches and entire communities of flimsy, precariously perched shacks had been swept away, as well as larger homes that were in safer locations a greater distance from the mountainside.

They added that the unprecedented disaster occurred not only right before Christmas but also just after Venezuelans voted to adopt a new constitution. "The vast majority of the people of Venezuela consider this constitution a document of hope," they wrote.

But now thousands of survivors are left struggling to find hope in immediate relief.

Michigan-based International Aid is also responding by shipping blankets, food, and hygiene kits to the stricken areas. "The flooding in Venezuela has devastated the country, leaving thousands dead and many homeless," said Jinny DeJong, chief operating officer.

A Venezuelan flood aid center has been opened in Miami, FL, and the International Red Cross is responding to emergency needs, especially medical needs because the risk of dengue, cholera, gangrene outbreaks is very high.

"The level of destruction is incredible," said Jonathon Frerichs of Lutheran World Relief.

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