The Miami Herald
January 14, 2000
Towns still buried under mud


 MACUTO, Venezuela -- The coastal hometown of Nestor Jaspe is a modern-day
 Pompeii, buried in neck-deep hardened mud and rocks from floods last month,
 where he has returned for the first time to survey his losses.

 ``My taxi is under here,'' he says, pointing to a dusty patch of earth that also
 covers a 20-seat bus that once provided his livelihood. ``It's a brand new Daewoo,''
 he laments. ``I bought it last year.''

 Four weeks after torrential rains stripped mountainsides and unleashed floods that
 screamed down hillsides of coastal Venezuela with a lethal cargo of mud, tree
 trunks and boulders, residents like Jaspe are coming back to their ruined homes,
 toiling at recovery and contemplating the massive damages.

 ``I used to be middle class,'' said Luis Arlia, 38, a computer shop owner who lost
 his uninsured home and his shop. ``Not any more.''

 Many devastated areas still have no electricity. Drinking water is in short supply.
 And relief officials flying over the afflicted coast, viewing the rubble in town after
 town, appear astonished at the extent of damage.

 ``I don't think people outside of here understand the magnitude of this disaster,''
 said U.S. Air Force Col. William E. Osborne, who heads a U.S. military relief
 team. ``Every river valley had a rock slide. So every town got hit. It's from serious
 to catastrophic damage.''

 It is still unclear how many people were buried in the mud and landslides from
 Venezuela's worst disaster this century. Estimates from the Venezuelan Red
 Cross and authorities under President Hugo Chavez range from 15,000 to 50,000
 people dead. Osborne said U.S. officials believe there may have been at least
 16,000 fatalities.


 Far fewer bodies have been recovered, but bulldozers pushing a primitive dirt road
 through the buried coastal region unearth corpses almost daily. Bodies continue
 to wash up on beaches, according to news reports, even as far away as the
 island of Aruba.

 Triggered by once-a-century rains, the floods and mudslides ripped through an
 area of central coastal Venezuela where 350,000 people lived. The disaster also
 lashed Caracas, the capital on the other side of a mountain range, although with
 less fury.

 Immense boulder fields, tangled with tree trunks and mangled cars, now lie where
 stream beds once dropped into the sea from El Avila mountain chain.

 What look like scratch marks or tear streaks mar mountainsides, where
 vegetation on thin topsoil gave way and roared down gullies and streambeds.

 ``It became a land avalanche, basically,'' said Roddy Tempest, head of a Durham,
 N.C., water purification company helping U.S. relief efforts. ``The size of some of
 those stones exceeds 10 tons, and some of them came from several miles away.
 . . . It's worse than it looks because there are so many people covered up.''


 To enter some high-rise buildings, residents clamber in through second-story
 windows. The first floors of hundreds of homes and apartment buildings, from La
 Guaira to Carmen de Uria, remain buried. In the resort town of Macuto, once
 dotted with beach restaurants, it seems that every block, street and home has its
 tale of woe.

 ``There are three dead in here,'' said Pedro Amore, 50, a waiter who approached a
 visitor and pointed to a house. ``It smells of death. Smell it?''

 Relief workers say residents of Vargas state, the coastal area north of Caracas
 that was hardest hit, remain psychologically brutalized.

 ``People are in shock. They have a lost look in their eyes. They aren't coherent
 when they speak,'' said Winston Rojas, an epidemiologic expert who lives in the
 ruined coastal town of Los Corales.


 Access to the area is only with permits issued by the national guard, and heavily
 armed troops watch for looting.

 On Macuto's Avenida España, relief workers painted the owner's name on the
 front of each home, along with a telephone number, hinting at the people who
 once occupied the houses on this now-desolate and buried street.

 Jaspe, 38, and his family occupied a four-bedroom house until that terrifying night
 Dec. 15 when mudslides and rock avalanches roared down the Macuto River and
 swallowed the town. Some residents like Jaspe have returned in recent days,
 traveling along a newly opened coastal dirt road, to size up what is left of their
 property, then going back to refugee shelters or other lodging in Caracas by

 Looking resigned and shaken, Jaspe said his wife, Lilia, and their three children
 have suffered nightmares since the rock slides.

 ``I think they need to see a psychologist. It was traumatic. They were crying and
 screaming. We could feel the rocks coming down,'' he said.

 Like many homes, the Jaspe residence, with its open-air rooftop terrace, was

 Before the floods, the small Macuto River flowed three blocks away. But many
 coastal rivers changed route, their original beds blocked by debris and boulders.
 The Macuto jumped its banks and now flows along what used to be Isabel la
 Catolica Avenue, 25 yards behind the Jaspe home.


 Standing on the river's new banks, retired school evaluator Humberto Castillo, 60,
 decried plans by President Chavez to relocate coastal residents inland.

 ``The Chavez government does not believe in the capacity of people to rebuild.
 This is an error. People here must rebuild what they had. Humans are creatures
 of habit, and we are accustomed to living here,'' he said.

 Faced with decades of lax building enforcement that allowed scores of
 shantytowns to spring precariously from mountainsides, Chavez and other
 officials insist that entire settlements must be relocated. In Caracas, authorities
 this week began moving 1,500 families in the Gramoven and Blandin
 shantytowns, saying they were the most extreme cases of the one million
 residents believed to live on unstable lands.

 ``It is preferable to have 5,000 angry people than to have 5,000 dead people,'' Civil
 Defense director Angel Rangel said.

 Osborne, the U.S. Air Force colonel, said he believes government estimates that
 full recovery may take as long as seven years are reasonable.

 ``When you look just at the scope of the thing, just the amount of material to be
 removed off the roads and out of the towns, it is tremendous,'' Osborne said. ``But
 obviously they are well on the way to immediate recovery.''

 He said he believed that only another month or two are needed ``before minimal
 systems and services are provided throughout the area.''

                     Copyright 2000 Miami Herald