More than 1,000 dead in Venezuela floods
From staff and wire reports
CARACAS, Venezuela (CNN) -- The official death toll from this week's floods
topped 1,000 on Sunday in Venezuela's worst natural disaster in a half-century,
said Gen. Isaias Baduel, the military leader in charge of rescue operations.
Many victims may never be found.
Raging rivers and mudslides along Venezuela's Caribbean coast have left
least 6,000 people missing and presumed dead as heavy rains swept away
entire communities, leaving more than 100,000 without homes.
Soldiers made arrests Sunday to stem widespread looting in the region,
where tens of thousands remain stranded. Elite paratroopers rappelled from
helicopters to help survivors on buildings enveloped in mud and water.
'The town doesn't exist anymore'
The worst flooding was in the state of Vargas, just north of the capital
where authorities believe many people are buried beneath mud, boulders and
"The town doesn't exist anymore," said Gabriela Gonzales, 22, a resident
Carmen de Uria in Vargas.
President Hugo Chavez, a former paratrooper, took personal command of a
military unit involved in rescue operations.
"They told me today that we have more than 500 bodies in a gathering
center," he told reporters Sunday morning.
Most of the victims were buried alive under avalanches of mud or swept
downstream on Wednesday and Thursday as torrential rains drenched
Venezuela's central coastal area. The toll includes at least 100 dead in
Caracas: The final figure was expected to be much higher.
Gen. Vassili Kotoski Flores, vice minister of the justice ministry, said
hundreds of bodies were floating in the Caribbean Sea and might not be
recovered because officials are focusing on rescuing the living.
Homes swept away from Mount Avila
The torrential rains were blamed on La Nina, a meteorological
phenomenon that has brought unusually rainy and cool weather to
The downpour triggered avalanches of mud, rocks and boulders on Mount
Avila, outside Caracas. Thousands of flimsy, precariously perched shacks
were swept away. Millions of poor people had built homes on the mountainside
because they couldn't afford to live anywhere else. For decades, government
officials did little to stop them.
Several countries have offered aid to Venezuela, Chavez said, including
United States, Cuba and Mexico. Mexico sent 220 soldiers, disaster relief
experts and four transport planes, while the United States sent a transport
and nine helicopters.
Rains and rescues continue
Chavez, dressed in combat fatigues, said paratroopers would first provide
food and water rations, and then drop communications supplies, so people
can signal pilots to ask for more help.
Rains continued Sunday, but were light enough to allow rescue teams to
clear debris, recover bodies and ferry stranded victims from submerged
towns to the nation's main airport in La Guaira, a port town outside the
All commercial flights at the airport were canceled for a fourth straight
and traffic in much of the country remained paralyzed.
Survivors like 45-year-old Marina Pantoja and her family spent the night
sleeping on chairs in an airport waiting room after being rescued. She waited
anxiously for missing relatives to appear, and mourned the loss of her home
and practically her entire town of Caraballeda.
"There isn't anything. It's a desert," she said. "It's as if there had
Insurance experts estimate the floods have caused at least $2 billion in
Mexico City Bureau Chief Harris Whitbeck, The Associated Press and Reuters
to this report.