5,000 feared dead and 150,000 homeless in Venezuela floods

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The Independent Online
THE MAGNITUDE of the calamity caused by Venezuela's mudslides and flooding unfolded as rain eased yesterday with 5,000 people believed dead, thousands more missing presumed dead, and 150,000 left homeless across nine states.

Venezuela's Foreign Minister, Jose Vicente Rangel, raised the estimated death toll last night from 1,000 to 5,000 as the country's Caribbean coastline, a playground for the wealthy ofthe capital Caracas turned into a cemetery.

The flooding is the worst natural calamity to have hit Venezuela this century.

Vargas, the tiny coastal state north of Caracas was worst hit and 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, sending huge boulders and 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 himself 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. 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.

One battleship, several amphibious vehicles, and over 12,000 troops are on patrol along the battered coastline, overseeing the pick-up of 3,000injured people and transporting them alongside the decaying cadavers. Police and emergency workers warned that Vargas was on the brink of a major public health crisis, with no electricity to refrigerate the corpses, and running water knocked out in most areas.

Desperate residents had been salting the bodies which slid down the cliffs last Wednesday in order to keep down the terrible stench.

At Caracas international airport, disaster relief teams were seen scurrying across the tarmac with the injured and the smell of decaying bodies filled the terminal.