1,000 feared dead and 7,000 missing in Venezuela floods

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The Independent Online
AS STORMCLOUDS cleared over Venezuela yesterday, the full horror of last week's disastrous floods became apparent, with at least 1,000 people believed dead, 7,000 missing, and 150,000 left homeless across nine states.

Vargas, the tiny coastal state, yesterday resembled a war zone. Thousands of homeless people trudged through the mud and debris; many of them had lost every member of their family in the disaster. Witnesses said 20ft walls of water had swept down the mountain separating Vargas from the capital Caracas, sending huge boulders and unstoppable waves of mud and debris into the settlements and resorts below.

A military airlift plucked to safety thousands of people who were stranded on storm-lashed coastal strips yesterday. President Hugo Chavez Frias led paratroopers bringing in emergency supplies. Drinking water is in short supply.

Officials said three dozen helicopters had rescued more than 15,000 people - many of them stranded on rooftops - in Vargas state, north of the capital, which has suffered the worst destruction from mud slides caused by unseasonable torrents. General Isaias Baduel, in charge of recovery in Vargas, projected that in the state alone there were over a thousand fatalities. "It's very probable that it will be much more than that," he said.

At least 50 bodies were picked up after being swept out to sea, and hundreds more were buried beneath mud, boulders and debris. At least one battleship, several amphibious vehicles, and over 12,000 troops are on patrol along the battered Venezuelan coastline, overseeing the pickup of three thousand injured people so far, and transporting them alongside decaying cadavers. Desperate residents had been salting the bodies which slid down the cliffs last Wednesday in order to keep down the stench.

Police and emergency officials warned that Vargas was on the brink of a major public health crisis, with no electricity to refrigerate corpses, and running water knocked out in most areas.