VENEZUELA DISASTER: Floods are climax to year of the deluge

Devastation in South America already matches that caused by Hurricane Mitch - and more rainstorms are expected
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THE HUMAN toll of mudslides and flooding in Venezuela this week is already equal to that in Central America caused by Hurricane Mitch, the 72-hour storm that swept away one-fifth of the homes in Honduras and Nicaragua, killing 15,000 people this time last year.

Colombia, Venezuela's western neighbour, must now brace itself for further heavy rains expected to cause landslides and floods along its Caribbean and Pacific ports. Since August unpredictable rainfall has displaced more than 771,000 Colombians, although no more than 100 deaths were recorded.

During the weekend, when 32 local roads were buried under mudslides and boulders, 12 Colombian rescue workers and ten tons of emergency medical supplies and rations were flown across the border to Venezuela, where more than 15,000 people are now feared dead.

"We know what this kind of disaster is like. We're living it. We're showing our solidarity for our Venezuelan brothers," said Eduardo Gonzalez, the director of Colombia's Presidential Office for Disaster Relief. The lower body count in Colombia is one of the few benefits of massive displacement caused by the ongoing civil war. To escape bloodletting between guerrillas, paramilitaries, and government forces, more than a million villagers, otherwise be vulnerable to storms, have already fled to the cities.

Weather patterns in the heart of Latin America, from the wave-battered Pacific coast of Mexico across to the Caribbean shores of Venezuela, and through tropical islands lined up in the Atlantic's notorious Hurricane Alley, are all out of kilter. Lately, severe storms have arrived later in the season and dumped more water in a shorter period. According to Cajical Observatory, Venezuela, 156 litres of water per square metre fell in Venezuela last Wednesday.

William Gray, a veteran hurricane forecaster from Colorado State University in the United States, blames La Nina for most of the recent devastation. Unlike El Nino,the global warming phenomenon, this is a colder relative, which was first noticed in June 1998 and responsible for Hurricane Mitch.

La Nina is characterised by unusually cold sea-surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific as far as Tahiti and, Mr Gray says, enhances "hurricane formation in the Atlantic Basin.'' This covers the North Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.

Fourteen named storms, nine hurricanes, and three intense hurricanes ravaged this area over the year. Of 1999's major hurricanes, Bret, Cindy, Floyd, Gert and Lenny were Category 4, characterised by top sustained winds of at least 131mph. Floyd was considered the most destructive, but was not nearly as damaging as Mitch, the year before.

Rainy and noticeably cooler weather has struck South America this year as as a result of La Nina, particularly in the Andean region that backs on to Venezuela. A report issued this week, supported by satellite data and microwave measurements from Nasa, spelt out the climatic changes. "Chilled by La Nina, a vast area of slightly cooler than normal air spread across most of the Pacific in November, from the Gulf of Alaska to the Antarctic and from South America to Indonesia and Australia,'' the report stated. The knock-on effects of increased precipitation so late in the year have been deadly and storms are expected to continue as long as La Nina chills the waters.

Mexico was devastated in October by the nation's worst floods in 40 years, with hundreds of thousands made homeless across five states and several hundred buried alive by mudslides. At the same time, Central America and Colombia had unexpected floods. Two months later, Venezuela crumbled under 10 days of unrelenting rain.

t For the first time in a decade, rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia called a truce yesterday, after they received more than 100,000 Christmas cards from ordinary families urging them to put down their guns for the holiday season and to desert. The ceasefire, which started yesterday, will stay in effect until 10 January.