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Death toll rises as Venezuela digs out

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | December 20, 1999

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

dead bodies.

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

left homeless.

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

fundraising effort.

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

International Aid.

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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