Survivors struggle following flooding

BY PJ HELLER | LA GUAIRA, Venezuela | December 30, 1999

LA GUAIRA, Venezuela (Dec. 30, 1999) -- "Mi casa," says Jose Gregorio, moving

his hands to form the outline of a house. "Gone."

He waves his hands again rapidly, and emits a whooshing sound.

"Gone," he says again in halting English.

While Gregorio may not have had much before, his only possessions now are the

shoes, shirt and pants that he is wearing. Everything else that he owned --

including his house in La Guaira in Vargas state -- was washed away in a sea

of water, mud and debris in what officials say was Venezuela's worst natural

disaster in history.

Government officials have said that up to 30,000 people may have perished

when torrential rains unleashed floods and mudslides in several areas of the


Gregorio is one of the 11,435 Vargas residents that the government said it is

sheltering. The number of homeless -- like the death toll -- has fluctuated

wildly, with figures of those who lost their homes varying anywhere from

140,000 to 400,000.

In Vargas state, a government official said that 58,000 homes were destroyed

and another 25,000 damaged. Eight hospitals and 16 clinics - about 80 percent

of the health-care services - were destroyed along with about 50 percent of

the public schools, the official said. More than 6,000 to 7,000 people are

still reported missing, he said.

"To this day, to this hour, families are reporting people who are still

missing," said Ivan Cedeno, general secretary for the state of Vargas.

Cedeno said that some areas, particularly along Vargas' eastern coastal

region, still are inaccessible two weeks after the storm and floods hit.

Gregorio pointed to a hard cement surface at a makeshift aid distribution

center and government staging area when asked where he was sleeping.

"Very hard," he said, leaning down to touch the cement.

As he spoke, helicopters continued to land on what appeared to once be an

outdoor basketball court and community center. After touching down, a net

filled with relief supplies was attached by rope to the craft's

underbelly. The helicopter then off, heading for the hard-hit coastal area

where it would deliver the much needed supplies.

Food, water and other essentials continued to be delivered to the government

run community center, where they are then disbursed or flown out by

helicopter. About 25 flights a day are being carried out, officials said.

All donations, whether from faith-based groups, businesses or others, have


centralized by the government throughout the state.

"The churches have been helping tremendously with donations," noted Carlos

Lanz, who is serving as coordinator of social emergency programs for


Cedeno said the most pressing need continues to be for potable water and

medical supplies.

Some faith-based groups were providing shelter and delivering supplies to

government distribution centers. Others, like the Iglesia Presbiteriana

Principe de Pal Caracas (Presbyterian Church), were awaiting word from the

government on how they could help so as to avoid a duplication of effort.

Assessments were also under way by some faith-based groups.

"We're in a holding pattern because of the government," said Loida Valera, a

church elder and moderator of the Presbytery.

At the staging area in La Guida on Wednesday, a meeting was held of the

Comite Nacional de Emergencia (CONACEM), a national emergency committee

composed of government officials, including the minister of health, energy

and education.

At that session, the governor of the state of Vargas outlined priority needs

for his region and discussed plans of action. Many of the survivors are

expected to be relocated to military bases and tent camps which are being set

up, although officials said some people were unwilling to leave.

As relief and cleanup efforts continued, concerns were expressed about the

possibility of more rain forecast for next week. Light showers fell Wednesday


Officials said more rains could make a dangerous situation even more


"There is a new syndrome among the people now," Cedeno said. "They have a

fear of the rain."

At least one resident was also concerned about how people affected by the

storm were being portrayed.

"We're all being labeled as victims," he said. "We want to be given an

opportunity to rebuild our homes and our lives. We need to be given a chance,

an opportunity to rebuild our lives."

Earlier Wednesday, representatives of some faith-based organizations met

again discuss how they could work together and which areas they could each


Rev. Ramon Castillo of the Union Evangelical Pentecostal Church in Caracas,

said he believed the various faith-based groups could forge a strong alliance.

"We have worked together in the past," he said. "There is no reason to think

it won't happen again."

Posted Dec. 30, 1999

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