Flood Damage in Venezuela. Wikimedia Commons

Under a Sea of Mud

It has not stopped raining since December 15th. An estimated 50,000 people have died and 600,000 left homeless, but the numbers are destined to rise. AVSI's Maria Teresa Gatti, responsible for emergency aid to the flooded country, reports
Riccardo Piol

And it goes on raining. In mid-December, the coasts of Venezuela were hit by a violent flood, and since then there has been a constant succession of overflowing rivers and crumbling mountains, in the worst natural catastrophe to strike the country since the beginning of the twentieth century. It has been calculated that in the coastal regions of Vargas and Miranda and in the interior of Tàchira, more than 600,000 people have been left homeless. The Red Cross speaks of more than 50,000 dead, but these numbers are still not precise. The majority of those who dies were the inhabitants of the ranchos, the Venezuelan favelas, and no one knows how many people lived in the countless huts built more or less everywhere. One fact is certain: the country has been brought to its knees. Drinking water is scarce, as is food, and there are not enough organized relief shelters to hold all the flood victims. But most alarming, it is still raining.

The flood and the referendum
Wednesday, December 15th, for Venezuelans was the day of the referendum approving the new constitution. President Hugo Chavez wanted to give birth to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. But while the country was going through the process of the referendum, apocalyptic events were taking place. Someone had predicted that with all that water, something bad was bound to happen. The constitution was approved, but thousands of people died, and in the newspapers some talked about those who "died for yes." Vargas, the resort region east of Caracas, was struck by a river of mud and water that invaded the streets of the city, sweeping away entire ranchos. In the nearby region of Miranda (which includes the district of Caracas), the great El Guapo Dam collapsed, but luckily the population was evacuated in time. In Falcon, the flood hit the Caribbean coasts and the same fate struck the towns of Zulia that face Lake Maracaibo and the Gulf of Venezuela.
When the country awoke from this nightmare, the rain had destroyed 80% of the sewer system, more than 10,000 houses were lost, and 4,000,000 cubic meters of mud covered the ground in just the region of Vargas.

Along the coast
"The avenues that run along the coast of Vargas are interrupted in various points. Communications are down, houses and roads have been buried under meters of mud. And to get a sense of the situation it is necessary to fly over the zone in a helicopter," reports Maria Teresa Gatti, AVSI [Association for Volunteers in International Service] head of emergency aid. "Vargas is a region with a rancho in every little bay. These structures climb up the coastal hills and have sprung up like mushrooms between one city and the next, without even being marked on maps. With the rains and the landslides, all these huts slid to the bottom of the hills. Long lines of people are along the roads, waiting to get water. Some try to go back into their houses to get whatever is left. The worst problem is that there are not enough structures to house all the homeless. For the moment we have decided to concentrate our efforts on the northwestern part of the country, working together with the local Icarus Association. The goal is to distribute to the 2,000 homeless the most essential items for survival through some children's shelters in the areas of Caracas and San Antonio de los Altos. We have been asked to intervene also in the areas of Merida and Ejido, but this will depend on finances. We must also prepare the structures for housing these people for a long time and to help the many children who have lost their families."

Emergency intervention
Humanitarian aid is arriving from all over the world. Latin American, European, and even African countries have begun to vote in favor of aid funds. And the international humanitarian agencies are already on the scene. "But there is great disorganization," Maria Teresa explains, "because the government has not yet decided how to go about this. For the moment it has sent masses of military troops to curb the phenomenon of thievery and exploitation of the disaster, but it has not been able to act in a way that adequately addresses the size of the catastrophe." "It is searching for solutions," says Father Leonardo Grasso, on mission in Venezuela (cf. Traces, n. 1,2000, p. 4), "but what is becoming increasingly evident is that it is stumbling in the dark. The aid is there, but it must be coordinated. In Miranda, where the governor has not tried to centralize the management of the aid interventions, things are proceeding well. Elsewhere, on the coast for example, there is great confusion." On January 17th-to give an idea of the disorganization-the government turned back an American ship loaded with materials and personnel to build a coastal road. The reason: "We don't need any American aid." But the request for that aid had been made directly by the Venezuelan Ministry of Defense.

The rains continue
"While we are beginning to intervene," Maria Teresa continues, "it goes on raining, and various areas are still at risk. After the first flood on December 15th that struck the coast, there was another one at the beginning of January that hit the interior." The mountain region of Tàchira went through the same drama as the coastal regions less than a month later: between January 3rd and 9th torrential rains fell, taking thousands of victims, forcing 3,000 people to flee, and wreaking untold damage.

In Vargas, Miranda, and the other regions facing the sea, "after the first phase of procuring emergency food," Father Leonardo explains, "we have to be able to act with intelligence, to think about immediate needs, looking also at the near future. People are only now beginning to realize the true proportions of the catastrophe, because the news has come out in bits and pieces. Thus, we have to stay with them to help them not only in their most concrete needs but also in facing the drama of their lost family members, their destroyed homes, and beginning life all over again."