Venezuela to abandon the worst-affected areas for ever as homeless reach 140,000

AS THE evacuation of survivors from last week's devastating floods and landslides in Venezuela started winding down yesterday, the country began to count the likely cost of reconstruction after its worst natural disaster in living memory.

Official estimates of the number of dead range as high as 30,000, most of them in the northern coastal state of Vargas, which was by far the worst-hit area. About 70,000 survivors have been rescued by sea and air from Vargas.

The search for bodies has been extended, but many will never be found, since they were washed out to sea or buried under tons of mud and rocks. The total number of people affected nationwide is put at almost 340,000. Of these, some 140,000 are homeless.

The floods affected half a dozen different states, as well as the capital, after two weeks of steady, unseasonal rain caused rivers to burst their banks and a dam to overflow.

The business organisation Fedecamaras has calculated the cost of reconstruction at $15bn to 20bn (pounds 9bn to 13bn), with $10bn in losses to the private sector alone. The organisation says 200,000 jobs have been lost, with the tourist industry particularly badly hit.

The constituent assembly (ANC), which is functioning as a de facto parliament while the country makes the transition to a new constitution, is prepared to authorise the executive to implement a "war economy". Among other things, this would enable it to oblige the private sector to contribute to the relief effort.

"It cannot be justified," said ANC member Alfredo Pena, "that when people are dying they can't be taken to private clinics, and that heavy machinery has to be borrowed to remove the rubble."

Much of Vargas, which for residents of Caracas was a handy and popular weekend beach destination, will never be rebuilt as it was before the disaster. The government has declared that it will not permit building in areas vulnerable to flash flooding, and some of these may simply be turned into parks.

In Caracas itself, the long-term need is to relocate 25,000 homes, which a 1994 study had already identified as located in vulnerable areas.

Maiquetia international airport, which serves the capital, may remain closed to commercial traffic for at least another week. Although the airport is undamaged, the road that links it to Caracas is partly blocked by landslides. More than 20,000 passengers have been stranded by flight cancellations so far.

The nearby port of La Guaira will probably require several weeks' work before it can be restored to normal service, the authorities have said.

In statements to the press, President Hugo Chavez said the first phase of what the government is calling Operation Rescue 2000 was drawing to a close. "We are now entering a second phase, which is much more demanding," he said.

Phase two will involve, among other things, the reconstruction of roads, port facilities and other infrastructure and the restoration of services, including food supplies.

Julio Montes, the Infrastructure minister, said yesterday that in less than 10 days "restricted road access" would be in place along the Vargas coast, where the main road was 90 per cent destroyed or buried under mud. Major Arnaldo Certain, the director of Maiquetia airport, said he expected it to reopen within 72 hours. However, 10 days will be spent repairing the motorway linking the airport with Caracas.

A National Disaster Committee, headed by the Health minister Gilberto Rodriguez Ochoa, has been set up to handle phase two of Rescue 2000. One of the most complex aspects will be the permanent relocation of the homeless, for which the President is proposing large numbers be moved into the interior of the country.

To this end he has ordered the acceleration of plans to create agrarian communities and to develop the vast Llanos region, in the basin of the Orinoco and Apure rivers.

Land belonging to the armed forces has already been set aside for housing and agricultural activities, and the search is on for other suitable plots. In 45 days it is planned that the first 200 houses will be ready for occupation on land belonging to the army's Fort Guaicaipuro in Miranda state.

"The basic idea is self- help construction," President Chavez said. "We will build the houses and prepare the land for cultivation and the raising of animals, and create micro- businesses of various kinds."

So far there is no sign of epidemics breaking out caused by the disaster. However, with emergency services stretched to breaking point, the provision of international aid may prove to be crucial in helping avert a second disaster. Mr Rodriguez Ochoa warned that diarrhoea and dehydration were among the dangers, given the precarious state of water and sewage systems in the disaster area.

Harder to assess is the likely political impact of the tragedy. The height of the disaster coincided with the celebration of the Chavez government's crushing victory in the referendum to approve a new constitution, but since then politics - in the words of the Foreign Minister, Jose Vicente Rangel - has been "filed away".

Despite criticism of the government's slow initial response - said by some to have been due to its concern to avoid postponing the referendum - the overwhelming sense at present is of national unity. Fresh general elections under the new constitution, scheduled for February, are likely to be postponed. The campaign will be the first real opportunity to tell whether President Chavez is losing his appeal.

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