U.S. Water News Online
LA GUAIRA, Venezuela -- Survivors wandered in search of
food and water amid the stench of decaying of bodies as the death
toll from massive mudslides and flooding in Venezuela surpassed an
estimated 5,000, making it the worst natural disaster to strike the
nation this century.
Disaster relief workers scurried across the tarmac with the
wounded at Caracas' international airport, which normally is bustling
with travelers and duty-free shoppers. The smell of cadavers wafted
through the airport.
Nearby Caribbean beaches, devastated by landslides and floods from
last week's torrential rains, were turned into cemeteries, and
widespread looting broke out across the northern coastline.
Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel raised the estimated death
toll to 5,000. The second most deadly disaster this century was an
earthquake that killed about 300 people in 1967.
It's not clear how many bodies have been recovered, but most of
the dead remained buried under rubble and mud.
Workers at the Southern Cemetery in Caracas were digging some
1,500 graves for the cadavers flowing in, most of whom were
unidentified. Pictures of the dead -- disfigured faces, some of which
still had pieces of jungle vegetation lodged in their mouths -- were
posted at the cemetery's gates.
Hundreds of anxious relatives gathered at the gates praying that
none of the photos belonged to a loved one -- and crying when they
With 150,000 people rendered homeless and 6,000 still missing,
most of them presumed dead under Rangel's latest death toll, the
magnitude of the calamity overwhelmed Venezuela's capacity to
respond. Dozens of nations from around the world rushed aid to the
South American nation, including two planes and nine helicopters from
the United States, which receives much of its petroleum from
Recently, large swaths of Venezuela's northern coast were swept
away when torrential rains triggered landslides that crashed down
from a mountain that separates the capital city of Caracas from the
``When I saw the wave coming at me, I didn't have time to remember
I was an old lady,'' said 74-year-old Blanca Rosa Giraldo, who ran
for her life and, unlike many others, made it to high ground.
Thousands of people remained cut off following the slides,
stranded on rooftops or in mud-buried villages or underground parking
lots where they'd tried to flee with their cars.
President Hugo Chavez dispatched hundreds of paratroopers who
descended by rope from helicopters to rescue survivors and provide
food and medicine. Navy ships were also moving up and down the coast
to rescue survivors.
Many of the dead and wounded were poor people living in shacks
made of tin, wood, and cinderblock at the foot of Mount Avila.
Millions had built homes on the mountainside because they couldn't
afford to live anywhere else. For decades, government officials did
little to stop them.
In the port city of La Guaira, a posh golf course, a country club
and elegant marinas with yachts were also wiped out.
Trained rescue dogs scoured the La Guaira area for survivors and
bodies. When trucks or volunteers carrying supplies appeared,
residents clamored desperately for a bottle of drinking water or a
piece of bread.
People begged reporters for help in finding lost loved ones.
Hundreds on La Guaira's beach scrambled to get their hands on apples
and fish from containers that had been ripped open by raging waters.
Members of the paratroopers' unit were sent to control widespread
looting along the coast by people seeking to take advantage of the
chaos. Most Venezuelans, however, were showing extraordinary
solidarity, streaming into relief centers with boxes of diapers,
medicine, food, and other supplies.
U.S. President Bill Clinton sent a letter to Chavez expressing his
``profound condolences to those who suffered losses,'' according to a
Spanish version of the letter issued by the Venezuelan Foreign
From the Vatican, Pope John Paul ll on urged ``all institutions
and people of good will to contribute generously so that ... the
tragic consequences of this great natural disaster can be repaired.''
Cuba was sending eight tons of medical and other supplies, along
with 200 medical personnel. Mexico contributed two Boeing 727s and
two Hercules transport planes along with 220 soldiers and disaster
A Colombia air force plane arrived with search and rescue workers
and 10 tons of supplies including tents, mattresses, electrical
generators, hammocks, and blankets.
The official coordinating the rescue operation, Vice Justice
Minister Vassili Kotoski Flores, said hundreds of bodies were found
floating along the coast off Vargas state.
``Some haven't been recovered because they floated off to sea,''
he said. ``There are more dead beneath mud and houses. How can I get
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