By Alfonso Fernandez
LA GUAIRA, Venezuela – The flooding that devastated the Venezuelan coastal state of Vargas and killed thousands of people has long been the subject of complaints from those who lost loved ones or property, and the ruins left by the tragedy are still visible.
“You saw the water that passed by and you felt the ground shaking, vibrated. You thought that it was an earthquake and ... the houses and stones that were on the mountain came down ... and the water looked red,” Jose Gregorio Lopez, a witness to the rivers of water and mud that swept through the area, told Efe.
Entire neighborhoods like Los Corales, Uria and sectors of La Guaira, where there was a dynamic tourist sector centered around luxury hotels, unused since that time, disappeared under the landslide of stones and mud that cascaded off the mountainside after days of torrential rain.
“The majority of the owners left because the buildings were half-damaged, such that people from other areas came and took them over,” said Lopez, who now works as a watchman at one of the vacant hotels so that squatters will not move in.
Jose Angel Morales is one of those people who invaded the area, seeing himself forced to move into one of the half-ruined apartment buildings because the San Julian River swept away his house.
“Nothing remained. The river took everything,” he told Efe at the door of a house lacking walls and inside which are enormous stones brought into the area by the mudslide.
The landslides that occurred on Dec. 15-16, 1999, erased from the map entire areas of the central Venezuelan coastline, at the foot of mountains rising more than 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) that separates Caracas from the Caribbean Sea.
More than 10,000 people died in the disaster.
About 8,000 houses were destroyed and some 240,000 people affected in the biggest natural catastrophe in the recent history of the South American country.
“Right now we’re invading so that they give us the house that’s our due. We’re here as a way to pressure the government because here they stole everything. All the international aid was lost,” said Morales, who added that many people affected in the disaster like him are preparing a census to present to the government to try and obtain aid.
A large part of Los Corales continues to be a devastated zone in which some of the ruins still have not been removed and many of the damaged buildings are filled with squatters.
Many of the people who lost their property were middle and upper class families, who abandoned the area in the face of the risk of new landslides and the precarious state of the remaining buildings.
But other people with fewer resources, like Morales, who works in a restaurant on the nearby beach, did not have any place to go. Some families were resettled by the government in other states.
Gen. Alejandro Volta Tufano, the president of Corpovargas, an institution created in 2000 to carry out reconstruction projects in the area, told Venezuelan media that “no country in the world has managed to carry out so much work in such a short time.”
Corpovargas is undertaking the construction of 5,000 houses and about 50 dams, as well as digging 22 kilometers (13.6 miles) of canals to prevent possible new flooding and to recover more than 500 kilometers (310 miles) of roads.
However, Carlos Genatios, the former science and technology minister and the head of the Autoridad Unica of Vargas, which prepared the prevention and reconstruction plans for the devastated region, criticized the fact that the government has not done more.
“It’s a very difficult task, but 10 years afterwards much more should have been done,” he told Efe, going on to warn that a similar situation “could occur and we’re not prepared.” EFE