December 19, 1999

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 at
                  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 Caracas,
                  where authorities believe many people are buried beneath mud, boulders and

                  "The town doesn't exist anymore," said Gabriela Gonzales, 22, a resident of
                  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
                  South America.

                  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 the
                  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 day
                  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 never been
                  any houses."

                  Insurance experts estimate the floods have caused at least $2 billion in

                  Mexico City Bureau Chief Harris Whitbeck, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed
                                          to this report.