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Wednesday, 7 June, 2000, 17:30 GMT 18:30 UK
Venezuela: Rebuilding after devastation
Carmen de Uria:  One of villages hardest hit by floods in December
Carmen de Uria: Venezuelan village devastated by floods in December
In a special report from Venezuela, the BBC's Peter Greste assesses the reconstruction efforts in Carmen De Uria, which was devastated by floods last December

Venezuela Floods
Once, Carmen de Uria was a pretty, bustling village nestling in a narrow valley that opened out onto Venezuela's spectacular north-east coast, about an hour's drive from the capital Caracas.

Where there used to be narrow crowded streets leading to a vibrant market place, now there is only a 30-metre wide rubble-lined gorge.

Jutting over the steep banks are dozens of gutted homes with their sides ripped open.

At least 500 of the town's 5,000 residents died in one colossal rainstorm on 15 December.

Most are still buried in the mud and sand heaped up by the sea, alongside the remains of some 500 of the 800 homes that used to make up Carmen de Uria.

On one wall hanging precariously over the river, someone has spray-painted a message:

'Here lived my mother. We ask God to bless her in heaven and all the others from the village who died.'

Huge human cost

It's like living in hell here

Flood victim
Carmen de Uria was probably the hardest hit of the hundreds of towns and villages affected by the pre-Christmas downpour.

No one knows exactly how many people perished, although aid agencies estimate that it was anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000.

The official figure for the number of homes destroyed is 20,000 while the number of homeless is estimated to be about 100,000.

The government is only now beginning to work out how to repair the damage, six months after the disaster.

The minister in charge of reconstruction, Carlos Genatios, says his government has already given away 5,000 homes. Another 2,000 are under construction .

"But in order just to keep up with the population growth and re-house all the new homeless, we have to build about 100,000 houses every year," he says.

A child in one of many refugee centres
A child in one of many refugee centres
"That means we will only be treading water, without even having an impact on people living in shanty towns."

First, they will have to shift the debris left by the floods.

It has taken practically every available bulldozer six months to shift just 10% of the 50 million cubic metres of mud which settled on the region.

Mr Genatios says that the ambitious government plan includes creating new towns and relocating entire communities to the safer central plains.

"We want to try to keep the social groups that formed in the original villages whole, so we need to move five, 10 or even 20 families together," he says.

Hard cash needed

Fresh water is unavailable in Carmen de uria
Fresh water is unavailable in Carmen de Uria
To implement the scheme, the Venezuelan Government and the aid agencies are in desperate need of more foreign help.

Minister Genatios said most of the foreign donations came in the days after the flood in the form of food, medical supplies, blankets and water purification kits.

Now they need hard cash to help pay the reconstruction bills.

Of the $35m promised at the outset, so far only $3 million has arrived.

Things might have been very different if our disaster came when more people were at home watching television

David Meneses, Red Cross
David Meneses, head of the Red Cross in the badly-affected state of Vargas, says that Venezuela was a victim of bad timing, with the floods coming as they did in the days before Christmas.

"Most Venezuelan entrepreneurs were out of the country," he says.

"The world banks, the donors - most of them were also away, and the world was preoccupied with the millennium."

"Things might have been very different if our disaster came when more people were at home watching television."

Flood victims rebuild

Many flood victims are trying to rebuild their lives
Many flood victims are trying to rebuild their lives
There are plenty of people who are not waiting for government help, preferring instead to try to rebuild their lives on the old land.

In Carmen de Uria, about 120 families have returned to the few homes that are still standing, determined to defy the government's plans to bulldoze the entire town and turn it into a memorial park.

"They used to say that Carmen de Uria couldn't be repopulated," says Zenalda Reguena who heads a local residents committee.

"But look at us now. We're restoring the town to what it was."

The committee has organised cleaning squads who are moving through the town, shovelling out the tonnes of mud and debris that choke the lower floors of most houses.

The mountainsides are still extremely unstable and landslides are likely

Carlos Genatios, Venezuelan Secretary of State
They are also restoring the old school, hoping to begin classes soon.

According to Mr Genatios, government studies show that it is simply too dangerous for anyone to live in Carmen de Uria, or a handful of other villages.

"There are huge risks involved," he warns.

"The mountainsides are still extremely unstable and landslides are likely."

That is of little help to the thousands of people still living in emergency shelters.

Along with the victims, many cars and homes are still buried in mud
Along with the victims, many cars and homes are still buried in mud
In one sports hall close to the town of Vargas, Carlotta spends her days cleaning clothes and doing her best to maintain some dignity in the crowded shelter.

Each family has a tiny space, only a few metres square, with nothing more than a cardboard box for privacy.

"It's like living in hell here," Carlotta said. "When it rains we get wet, and there is always fighting. People shouldn't live like this."

"We've been here for more than six months now, and still we don't know how much longer we will have to stay."

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