20,000 feared dead in Caribbean resorts buried under tide of mud

Click to follow
TWENTY THOUSAND people are feared to have died in the flooding and mudslides that devastated Venezuela, making the calamity one of the worst natural disasters in South America this century.

As the country struggles to come to terms with the aftermath of the floods that buried whole towns on its Caribbean coastline last week, the true scale of the calamity is only now becoming clear.

The Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Jose Vicente Rangel, said: "It definitely won't be less than 10,000 dead." Later he acknowledged that the death toll could run as high as 20,000, making it the country's worst ever natural disaster, and surpassing the estimated 10,000 people killed in central America by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Vargas, the tiny coastal state once dotted with fashionable Caribbean beach resorts bore the brunt of the devastation. Yesterday the government said the state may have to be razed and built again. The defence minister, Raul Salazar, spoke of "evacuating everyone" from Vargas - the population is 350 000 - adding that the reconstruction could take ten years.

With the state virtually cut off by road, and few telephones still working, frantic relatives have been unable to locate one another. Local television channels have tried to help by allowing a dozen or so at a time to appear with messages, photographs and phone numbers. Many find it hard to speak through their grief.

Carlos Luis Lopez and his wife, Virginia, have made the journey from Valles del Tuy, in the neighbouring state of Miranda. "Almost my whole family lived in Caraballeda and San Julian", said Mr Lopez with tears in his eyes. "Seven brothers, three of my children... I've no idea where they are"

In the plush resort of Caraballeda, one of the worst-hit places in Vargas, eyewitnesses spoke of corpses still uncollected and poking from the hardening mud as recently as Saturday. On a golf course, 10,000 survivors are waiting to be evacuated. Eighteen doctors attending them have been working for five days without a break, and the grim task of dealing with large numbers of rapidly decomposing bodies is now threatening to overwhelm the authorities.

In the overflowing southern cemetery in the capital city, Caracas, soldiers were helping dig a mass grave yesterday with capacity for 1,500. So far 85 bodies, in an advanced state of decay, have been buried there - but no one knows how many more to expect. Guillermo Herrera, of the National Chamber of Funeral Directors, of ."The 600 coffins that were in stock have all gone."

"We know there are 200 more bodies in refrigerated trucks belonging to [the national oil company] Pdvsa in [the capital of Vargas] La Guaira."

Many, perhaps most, of the victims' bodies will never be recovered from under tons of mud and rock. President Hugo Chavez admitted: "Some places will simply have to be declared holy ground."

Not since 1812, when the country was devastated by an earthquake that killed an estimated 40,000 people, has the country seen anything like the disaster brought on by last week's landslides and flooding.

"The most critical area we have, without a doubt, is Vargas," said President Chavez, who has declared three days of national mourning. "I can assure you that in Vargas alone there are more than 1,000 corpses," said General Rafael Baduell, commander of the paratroops deployed in the state.

Parts of Miranda state are also among the worst-affected of over half a dozen regions hit by the flooding and landslides. In some 40 villages at least 90 per cent of houses are reported damaged by the floods resulting from the overflow of 450 million litres of water from the El Guapo dam. A series of emergency centres, set up in stadiums and other large public buildings, are serving as temporary refuges.

Jose Luis Llamozas, a 39-year-old drum instructor, wearing a white shellsuit and an incongruous Santa Claus hat, has no idea what his future holds. Five days ago he was drinking beer and celebrating with friends in the San Bernardino neighbourhood after the Chavez government's victory in last Wednesday's referendum. "We were just discussing whether all this rain meant the end of the world was coming," he said, "when a girl came by crying and saying the stream was overflowing".

After rescuing his wife and mother from their house, he went back for his neighbours, only to find that the water was already neck-deep. Half an hour later, by 8pm, the torrent was bringing down trees and sweeping cars into the ground floor of his house. He and his friends took refuge in another building. "When we got to the third floor and it [the water] was still rising, we had to smash a window with a hammer and jump across to the next house.

At the Parque Naciones Unidas football stadium in Caracas thousands of survivors are being sheltered. Up to 3,000 at a time have been sleeping on the concrete terraces.

Aid workers there say the psychological toll has been terrible. "I helped rescue a three-year-old girl down in Vargas state," said Roberto Rodriguez, one of the coordinators. "Every time she saw water, she screamed ". Outside distraught relatives and survivors seek information on loved ones or try to put back together pieces of normal life.

Medical authorities are on the alert for outbreaks of disease caused by the lack of drinking water and sanitation. Dr Jose Antonio Suarez, an epidemiologist, said the presence of unburied bodies was not in itself a major health worry.

Already attention is beginning to turn to the long-term future for people whose houses will in most cases never be rebuilt. The government's aim, which is supported by the opposition mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, is to ensure that the capital's slums are not rebuilt beside the gullies that killed so many. But this almost certainly means people will have to be forced to move to the interior. "Where are we going to build 2,000 new homes - on Mt Avila?" Ledezma asked.

"We have no land, and there are [state] governors who have offered their help." The solution may not be voluntary. "They either go, or they go" Rodriguez said. But the survivors, whose jobs are here in the capital, are likely to resist. "It's a big lie that our houses were unsafe," says Jose Luis Llamozas. "I lived there for 39 years and nothing like this ever happened."

Year of the deluge, page 11