Venezuela wrecked by nation's `worst disaster'

OVERHEAD IS the constant clatter of dozens of helicopters ferrying survivors in a scene resembling a war zone. On the ground, trudging through mud and debris, thousands more make their way to safety, clutching a few pathetic possessions and household pets.

The tiny Venezuelan state of Vargas occupies a narrow coastal strip beneath Cerro del Avila, a 2,000m high mountain. Until a few days ago the state was synonymous with weekend breaks at the beach for the residents of the capital, Caracas.

But in the early hours of Thursday morning, after two weeks of almost incessant rain, the mountain virtually exploded. Walls of water as high as 20ft swept down its steep gullies, bringing with them whole trees and rocks the size of cars.

In Guanape, taxi driver Helio Rodriguez, 32, lost nine cousins and two aunts in one of the first houses to be swept away. "Nobody escaped, nobody," he said. "People ran, but what could they do?"

No one yet has any real idea of the death toll in Vargas or nationwide. The government speaks of 650 corpses and 7,000 people unaccounted for throughout the country, but this seems certain to be a significant underestimate. A tearful Lenin Marcano, mayor of the state capital of La Guaira, put the number of dead in Vargas alone at 25,000 - about 8 per cent of the population. But like everyone else, he is pulling figures from the air. "The dead here are looked on as pieces of rubble," said Helio, who buried his relatives in the sea. "We just put them on the beach and waited for high tide."

There is only one main road in Vargas: the beachfront boulevard known in La Guaira as the Avenida Soublette, which to the east becomes the coastal highway. Most of it is now totally impassable, buried by mud and rock up to six feet deep. Large stretches of the road have been washed away, along with entire communities that were home to thousands. Parts of the poorer neighbourhoods built on the steep slopes of the mountain have also disappeared. "I am from Llano Adentro," saidOscar Vargas, 21, who lost his entire family. "I mean I was from Llano Adentro. There's nothing there now." It is a phrase heard time and again.

In La Guaira there is a different scene of destruction around every corner. One narrow, sloping street is filled with rocks up to the first-floor windows of houses. A splash of crimson turns out to be the roof of a buried Volkswagen. In the next street, half-a-dozen smashed vehicles are piled two stories high against the wall of a small church. On a nearby rooftop lies a corpse, with a patterned sheet for a shroud.

The stench of death is a constant reminder that many more lie buried under the mud. The local public hospital, the Jose Maria Vargas, has closed its doors. "Too many dead in there," said Jesus Sanchez, a police detective. With no electricity and no running water, the state is on the brink of a major public health emergency. Next door to the hospital is the flooded headquarters of the electricity company. Next to that is the cemetery, where coffins lie in the mud.

It seems as if everyone is leaving. The only people heading east, away from the road to Caracas, are soldiers, rescue teams and volunteers. "To see this exodus breaks my heart," said Julio Capriles, a local community leader. "I believe in the reconstruction of the state - someone has to stay behind. Right now we're back to zero - the state has disappeared."

Vargas, which used to belong to the federal district, was created just over a year ago. As well as the beach resorts, it includes the country's main international airport, at Maiquetia, and the port of La Guaira, which handles about a third of Venezuela's trade. The motorway that links them with Caracas has been reduced to two lanes and is open only to emergency traffic, paralysing both the port and airport. Worse still is the state of the container depot at the port. Dozens of containers were tossed around like cardboard boxes and lie in crumpled heaps. Some floated out to sea, and those that did not were looted, along with most of the town's shops.

Recovery plans are hindered by the fact that virtually every port worker has been affected in one way or another by the disaster. "We need all the international aid we can get," Mr Capriles said. "This is probably the worst disaster in Venezuela this century. It is as if there had been a war."

Although Vargas is undoubtedly the worst hit, the disaster has affected almost the whole of northern Venezuela. In the neighbouring state of Miranda the El Guapo dam overflowed, causing extensive flooding and the closure of part of the main highway linking Caracas with the east.

In the capital itself, thousands of victims were stranded in high-rise flats by flood waters that rose to three stories. Thousands of others lost their homes and may have to be resettled in the country's interior. Across Venezuela an estimated 23,000 homes have been destroyed and another 96,000 damaged.

Amid the chaos, many still cling to their faith. In the cathedral of La Guaira, the swirling waters of the Rio Osorio tore a plaster statue of the Virgin of Coromoto from its pedestal and deposited it, intact and upright, on the altar steps. "People are calling it a miracle," Mr Capriles said. "At that moment the waters subsided."

In the half-buried neighbourhood of El Cardonal, a sodden book, open at its title page, lies at the foot of a spectacular mudslide with what seems to be a message for passers-by. It is entitled Fuerza para Vivir - the strength to live.