BY TIM JOHNSON
MACUTO, Venezuela -- The coastal hometown of Nestor Jaspe is a
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
decried plans by President Chavez to relocate coastal residents inland.
``The Chavez government does not believe in the capacity of people
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
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
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
systems and services are provided throughout the area.''
Copyright 2000 Miami Herald