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Venezuela flood victims still live in ruins 10 years on

15 December 09 07:24 GMT

By Will Grant
BBC News, Los Corales, Vargas state

"It had rained non-stop for two weeks," says Luis Martinez as he remembers the days leading up to the mudslides of 1999.

On 15 December 10 years ago, Venezuela suffered its worst natural disaster of modern times when a wall of water, boulders and debris came down the side of the Avila mountain.

"If you were in its way, God help you," said the father of four, who still lives in Vargas, the worst-affected state.

The exact number killed in the tragedy is hard to know, as many bodies were buried under the mud or washed into the sea.

But there are estimates that between 10,000 and 30,000 people lost their lives. Tens of thousands more were made homeless.

"She was just three months old," said Mr Martinez, nodding in the direction of his 10-year old daughter, "and we had to flee with her in our arms."

Ghost town

Los Corales is now a relatively peaceful coastal town. A decade ago, it was anything but.

The Martinez family was one of thousands fleeing the region to higher ground. But many were unable to get away in time and were trapped in their homes when the landslides hit.

Visiting the site of the tragedy a decade later is like stepping into a ghost town. Driving around the streets, there are dozens of homes which are mere shells, the boulders and compacted mud still evident in the rooms and patios.

Entire apartment blocks remain semi-collapsed, as though the flood waters had just hit.

Yet people live among these ruins.

Stepping past the stray dogs, rubbish and sewage in the front yard, we entered one such house in Los Corales, a few streets up from the seafront. Inside, three families are living in very precarious conditions.

"This place is critically dangerous," says resident Olga Hedler. "These pillars won't last much longer."

After being made homeless by the landslide, her family occupied two rooms on the top floor of a badly damaged holiday villa, with two other families living downstairs. In total, there are 12 children in the house, many of them walking barefoot or naked through the chaos.

Olga's main worry is simple.

"It could happen again, at any time. We live without knowing if another mudslide is going to come exactly like before. In fact, it would be worse because there are so many dilapidated buildings here."

Environmental groups would agree with her that the threat of a repeat experience looms over Vargas.

The Avila mountain has become even more denuded over the past 10 years as those who lost their homes in the floods have set up houses further up the hillsides.

Wasted hours

A supporter of the socialist government, Olga does not blame President Hugo Chavez for the slow pace of the reconstruction.

Instead she thinks the blame lies with "the people around him, the ministers, the government. Those people and their institutions, who he has charged with dealing with these problems, must do their jobs".

In December 1999, President Chavez had been in office for just 10 months and this was by far his fledgling government's greatest challenge.

But he immediately came in for criticism over the response.

The government was holding a referendum on 15 December on a new constitution and Mr Chavez was accused of failing to execute an evacuation plan fast enough because military and police resources were concentrated on the vote.

At the time, he was robust in his defence, famously saying: "They should shoot me if I had any personal responsibility in this."

But sitting in a cafe in Los Corales, Mr Martinez remembers it differently.

"All the police were manning the polling stations," he says. "The response was slow."

He believes valuable hours were wasted in which people could have been reached or saved.

That said, he adds, all Venezuelans are unanimous that little could have been done about the unseasonably heavy rains or the terrible force of the natural disaster.

Corruption

Instead, the difficult questions remain on the response in the intervening decade.

International aid and reconstruction money was sent from abroad, amounting to tens of millions of dollars, and emergency funds were freed up by the national assembly to the government.

Dozens of important reconstruction plans have never been carried out and numerous accusations of corruption have been made against the then-state and national authorities.

Some work has undoubtedly taken place, but many residents of Vargas say it has been patchy and inconsistent.

Earlier this year, during a visit to one of the government housing projects in Vargas, President Chavez referred to the state as a "phoenix rising from the ashes of 1999".

His critics say that vital lessons still have not been learned.

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