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Thursday, 23 December, 1999, 13:46 GMT
Floods dash hopes for economic recovery

The government says housing the homeless is the top priority

Officials estimate that the costs of reconstruction following Venezuela's disastrous floods will reach at least $15bn and take many years.

Venezuela Floods
No estimates have yet been made on the damage to Venezuela's economy and future earnings, but it is likely to be significantly greater.

Although rich in oil, economists says the disaster has virtually wiped out hopes that the country might recover from its deep recession in the near future.

Before the rains hit President Hugo Chavez had been predicting economic growth of around 2% for the year 2000, after years of stagnation.

Our country is experiencing one of its most difficult hours
Venezuelan embassy appeal
That now looks unlikely.

The damage wrought by the floods and mudslides caused by weeks of torrential rain was immense.

Disaster area

Thousands of survivors face having to start again from scratch
Across the coastal disaster area entire villages were swept away as hillsides turned into lethal rivers of mud. Thousands were buried alive - the final death toll may never be known.

Vital roads and bridges have been destroyed making the relief and reconstruction effort even more difficult.

The country's main port at La Guaira was also badly damaged, as was the main international airport at Maiquetia, 30 miles (50 km) north of the capital, Caracas.

The government says its priority is to provide housing for the estimated 150,000 left homeless, many of whom are sleeping in emergency shelters set up in stadiums, car parks, airports and military barracks around the capital, Caracas.

Survivors who have decided to stay are largely sleeping out in the open, but aid workers say these people are risking possible epidemics of hepatitis and cholera.

We don't even have a tree, presents or a change of clothes left to celebrate Christmas
Luis Hernandez
President Chavez has said that the government is looking to build new homes inland, away from the flood-prone regions.

He has already put on display scale models of the type of houses he wants to see built, but the costs of this reconstruction will be well beyond Venezuela's means alone.

Some economists have expressed alarm that impulsive, poorly-conceived reconstruction projects and poorly regulated spending could add to Venezuela's already vast budget deficit.

Kick-start economy

But others have said that the disaster could, ironically, prove to be the economic shot-in-the-arm that the country needed to reactivate its economy, creating jobs and attracting funds through long-term bond issues such as those used in other countries to fund post-war recovery.

In some of the worst-hit areas thousands of ordinary civilians have already set to work digging out what is recoverable from mud, some of which has since been baked hard by the sun.

Many others, overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, lack either the strength or the means to begin putting their lives back together.

Government officials are now trying to persuade those who have so far refused to leave their homes - or what remains of them - to abandon the area.

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See also:
22 Dec 99 |  Media reports
Venezuelans 'more united than ever'
21 Dec 99 |  Americas
Analysis: Floods a test for Chavez
21 Dec 99 |  Americas
Disaster - but was it natural?
21 Dec 99 |  Americas
Venezuela ambassador: We can't cope
21 Dec 99 |  Medical notes
Venezuela: The health risks
22 Dec 99 |  Americas
World rallies to Venezuela's aid
22 Dec 99 |  Americas
50,000 feared dead in Venezuela

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