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Venezuela's Vargas Disaster Hard to Forget

By Yensi Rivero*

Four years after the worst natural catastrophe in Venezuela, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people, the state of Vargas is still recovering, and even has the same number of inhabitants as it did in December 1999, before disaster struck.

CARACAS - Venezuelan José Rafael Domínguez will always remember the day that he grabbed a bottle of water and a portrait of his grandmother and jumped out the window of his third story apartment. An avalanche of mud and debris had surrounded the building, blocking the lower level doors and the stairs.

Carmen González also says she will never forget those days in December 1999. "The street became a river. It was immense, with water, mud, sticks and rocks. I thought it was the end, but luckily we were able to escape and a few months later we came back to rebuild."

Between the homes of Domínguez, in the east, and of González, in the west, are the 25 km of Vargas state, a stretch along the Caribbean Sea, near Caracas, that were hit by the worst natural disaster in Venezuelan history: the torrential rains and massive mudslides of Dec. 15 and 16, 1999.

One portion of the state quickly recovered and normal activity resumed. First were the cities of Maiquetía, home to the country's main airport, and La Guaira, the largest port. Then came the smaller towns, many of which are dedicated to tourism.

The government's clean-up effort included the removal of 12 million cubic meters of sediment, and 300,000 tons of rocks, which had been caught in the vegetation on the mountainsides and were dislodged by the flood of water.

Some of the debris, such as the fine sand and large stones, has been separated out and used in building jetties along the coast as part of the recovery process.

But Vargas is not what it was. The profile of the beaches has changed and the ones that were most popular among the four million visitors each weekend from Caracas have largely disappeared. The land surface has won 1,074 hectares of sea. There are plans to build a new avenue along this new space.

In addition to the surface damage, the disaster also affected the water and sewage networks.

The smaller restaurants, hotels and shops that served tourists in eastern Vargas have yet to recover the pace of business of better times. And the desolate landscape extends over many kilometers of beaches. Ten percent of the roads remain blocked.

The number of victims of the mudslides and floods was never established with certainty, but is estimated at 10,000 to 30,000. Hundreds are still considered "disappeared". Material losses from the catastrophe reach four billion dollars, around four percent of Venezuela's gross domestic product.

Over two days, an avalanche of water, rock and mud tumbled down Avila Mountain, which separates Caracas from the Caribbean Sea. The disaster was the result of the heaviest rainfall ever recorded in Venezuela.

The populations hit hardest were those that lived in dangerous locations, near the rivers or ravines of the mountainside.

Entire neighborhoods disappeared. Houses, trees and cars were swept up in the current. The mud invaded homes, hotels, streets and parks, leaving many buildings unusable.

Tens of thousands of people were able to escape on their own, but a gigantic operation by the armed forces and hundreds of volunteers saved the lives of many.

Like the González family, thousands of others were relocated to other parts of the country, some to houses assigned by the government. But often they were not well received. Their presence upset local customs, they competed for the few jobs available, and were seen as being favored by official government assistance, while the permanent local residents were overlooked.

Domínguez, head of a small advertising company, never returned to Vargas. "It was very difficult to pull up roots, but there is no going back. I have accepted it. I came to Caracas and here I will try to build my life," he told Tierramérica.

González, 50, with four adult children, did go back to Vargas. "When I left, I went to live with my sister near Caracas, and to get by I did ironing for families in the capital, but the business of selling 'empanadas' (filled pastries) was more profitable," she said.

Selling empanadas to tourists on the beach in Vargas earned her the equivalent of 15 dollars a day, while ironing in Caracas brought in just four to six dollars a day.

The González family returned to the tourist zone, set up their simple home, and are once again part of the 230,000 inhabitants of Vargas, a population similar to the pre-catastrophe total.

The recuperation of Vargas has not escaped the deep political polarization that afflicts Venezuela.

Vargas state governor Antonio Rodríguez, an ally of President Hugo Chávez, reports that "in this year alone we have carried out 84 major projects for 52 million dollars."

Meanwhile, Jaime Barrios, mayor of the city of Vargas and a member of the opposition, says, "The government is working more on beautification projects when what we need is an urban organization plan to put an end to unregulated, precarious settlements."

Carmen González is among those who believe that "many plans are moving at a tortoise's pace." As such, she says, "It would be best if everyone made an effort, without relying on the government."

"But one thing is for sure, I am not leaving Vargas."

* Yensi Rivero is a Tierramérica contributor.

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