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Firefighters help a woman cross a flooded street in Caracas earlier this week. [AP]

Floods, mudslides kill 200 in Venezuela

About 7,000 people are missing and 150,000 homeless as avalanches of mud bury victims.

©Washington Post, published December 18, 1999

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Torrential rains continued Friday to lash parts of Venezuela, where massive flooding and mudslides have left more than 200 people dead and 7,000 missing in what authorities described as the worst natural disaster to hit the country in 50 years.

The worst damage was along Venezuela's Caribbean coast and in Caracas, the capital. Most of the victims were buried in avalanches of mud or swept downstream on Wednesday and Thursday.

"There are approximately 150,000 people homeless, 7,000 persons are missing and about 200 dead," Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel told the Reuters news service. The death toll "unfortunately could rise in the next few hours," he said.

A group of Venezuelan women cry in a temporary shelter after their houses were damaged by mudslides in the outskirts of Caracas. [AP]
Authorities reported at least 100 fatalities in Caracas, where more than 250 people were missing. An additional 5,000 people were believed to have been left homeless in the city of 6-million, which is surrounded by mountains checkered with densely populated shantytowns that are particularly vulnerable to flooding and mudslides.

The disaster was attributed to La Nina, a meteorological phenomenon that has caused unusually rainy and cool weather throughout South America in recent months. A series of rainstorms and floods in Colombia has caused even more widespread death, damage and destruction than here, and forecasts are for the bad weather to continue for several days.

Entire neighborhoods in low-lying areas north of Caracas were swallowed by floodwaters, leaving only the twisted tin roofs of homes exposed. Families, hauling what few possessions they could salvage, plodded through waist-high water in search of shelter while residents dug through mud in an attempt to clear those roads that were not flooded. In mountainside shantytowns, hovels lay crushed by mud, rock and debris.

Evacuees waited in overcrowded shelters or wherever they could find refuge to learn the fate of missing relatives and friends, and to find out whether their homes had survived. Television and radio stations carried pleas for people to donate food, water, clothes, mattresses and antibiotics.

President Hugo Chavez, a former paratrooper who toured the disaster zone in camouflage fatigues, announced that naval vessels had been deployed to deliver 800 tons of drinking water to hard-hit coastal communities.

Rains continued to drench sections of northern Venezuela for a third day but let up in Caracas and neighboring Vargas state. Floodwaters continued to surge through streets devouring already weakened structures and impeding the search for survivors.

Along the coast running east from La Guaira, a popular weekend getaway for middle-class Caracas residents about 35 miles north of the capital, large sections of the road had collapsed into the sea. Water near the shore had turned a murky brown and was littered with large tree limbs and other refuse. Soccer fields were engulfed by water, only their goal posts visible, and water rose as high as two stories outside some buildings.

Defense Minister Raul Salazar, who is in charge of rescue operations, called the situation in the La Guaira region "a major disaster."

"There are between 20,000 and 30,000 homeless. It will take us two weeks to clean up the area, and between six and seven years to return the zone to its previous condition," he said.

Venezuela's main international airport, at Maiquetia, near La Guaira, was converted into a field hospital. All flights were canceled until at least today. Several countries, including the United States, Cuba, Spain and Japan, have offered assistance to Venezuela, which is suffering a severe recession. An estimated 80 percent of the people live in poverty.

Throughout the day, La Guaira was chaotic as sirens wailed, muddy rescue workers on motorcycles darted back and forth on the passable roads and the drone of helicopters filled the air. Throngs of people roamed the sidewalks carrying bags.

"I do not know where my son is. His name is Marvin. I fear he is dead," Maria Deyanez, 44, screamed to a police officer. Her husband was killed Wednesday night in a mudslide, his body carried to a local police precinct on a door that was found unhinged near her home. "I cannot bear to lose anyone else," she said.

In some parts of Caracas, the streets were dry and life went on with a normal rhythm as people drank coffee at sidewalk cafes and worked in shops. Others jogged Friday morning after the rains let up.

But in the poor neighborhood of Catuche, more than 50 shanties beneath an overpass were obliterated by floodwaters from a nearby river and broken water mains. Three people were killed.

The area has taken on the appearance of a sprawling junkyard, with stoves, mattresses, broken chairs and toilet seats, as well as a dead dog, strewn across the soaked ground. Residents sifted through the wreckage.

"This was our home of 15 years, a place where I have raised my children and enjoyed a loving family with what little we have," said Alejandria Ramirez, 31. "But I suppose God could have made things worse. My family and all my neighbors could be dead."

Handyman Enrique Serrano, 33, said he was watching Chavez on television Wednesday night with neighbors when the lights went out, a wall of water came crashing down a valley and his floor collapsed.

Serrano clung to a railing and a tree for a half hour while the waters raged around him, but his four neighbors were swept away. Just one has been found alive, he said.

"They were shouting "Help! Help!' " said Serrano, but there was nothing he could do.

-- Information from the New York Times and AP was used in this report.

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