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Venezuela Tries to Recover From Flood

July 30, 2002

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GUASDUALITO, Venezuela (AP) _ Floodwaters that were six feet deep in some places have mostly receded from this Venezuelan border town, but Guasdualito is still a place submerged in uncertainty.

Guasdualito, a town near the Colombian border about 375 miles southwest of the capital Caracas, suffered the worst of flooding that killed five people and displaced 50,000 residents from the plains state of Apure last week.

Even so, many in Guasdualito who endured hunger and thirst atop their rooftops instead of abandoning their homes don’t want to move anywhere else.

``As soon as I can, I’m taking my wife and two daughters and moving back,″ said Jesus Canizales, 27, a carpenter who was evacuated last week. ``I’d rather be here, dying of thirst and hunger, than wandering around not knowing what to do.″

For the town’s 25,000 residents, the immediate danger has passed for now, but the struggle has just begun. Receding water is leaving behind an overwhelming stench and heaps of mud. Rescue workers fear dust clouds will cause respiratory infections. Disease control is a top priority.

The most serious problem is getting enough drinking water, said Marlon Linares, director of Apure state civil defense. Many people are drinking from contaminated rivers, and more than 3,000 have been treated for diarrhea, fevers, skin infections and stomach parasites, the El Universal newspaper reported Monday.

Army troops are installing tanks of drinking water while the state-owned water company Hydroven scrambles to restore services.

Few people can rely on anything else in impoverished Venezuela, where many move to urban shantytowns, often in flood zones, instead of trying to eke out a living in the countryside.

Cleanup continues from disastrous 1999 flooding in the northern coastal state of Vargas, where as many as 15,000 people died, many of them residents of shanties built along long-dry riverbeds.

President Hugo Chavez declared a state of emergency in Amazonas, Apure, Barinas, Delta Amacuro and Portuguesa states, all of which have rain-swollen rivers, including the giant Orinoco river. The decree included $3 million in federal relief aid and allows troops to evacuate residents in flood zones.

Officials estimate that weeks of heavy rain may force as many as 25,000 people in five southern Venezuelan states to move permanently or build new homes.

About 7,000 Guasdualito residents still live in shelters, eating meals of oatmeal and sardines and worrying about their future.

``We’re accustomed to dealing with the river,″ said Yadira Gonzalez, 19, a housewife who is expecting her first child. ``When it lowers ... I’m leaving (this shelter), even if it’s to live on the roof for a while.″