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Venezuela Floods Leave Their Mark

December 17, 2000

LA GUAIRA VIEJA, Venezuela (AP) _ The task took him almost an entire year to finish, but Wilfredo Kelly has finally managed to empty his house of the mud and debris that filled it when flash floods and mudslides ripped through his neighborhood last December.

``I grew up here, I did not want to leave,″ Kelly said, looking down at a small stream in front of his house. A year ago that same stream turned into a gushing torrent of thick mud, tree trunks, and immense boulders that destroyed everything in its path.

``We all thought that the entire mountain was coming down,″ Kelly said, remembering how his house was buried within minutes of hearing a thunderous sound.

Government authorities estimate that at least 25,000 were killed and another 100,000 lost their homes when flash floods hit this coastal state situated between the sparkling blue Caribbean Sea and a towering mountain range.

``We will never really know for sure how many lost their lives here,″ said Carlos Genatios, a government minister.

Many of Kelly’s neighbors, whose houses were swept away, are gone. They have moved to government-built housing projects, many of which are located hundreds of miles away in the country’s sparsely populated interior.

In the wake of what is now popularly referred to as ``The Tragedy,″ President Hugo Chavez promised that every Venezuelan left homeless would have a new house by this Christmas.

Close to 13,000 new homes have been handed over to flood victims, but demand outstrips supply.

During an inauguration of a housing project this weekend, Yanitza Silva, a 29-year old single mother pushed through the crowd surrounding Chavez to confirm her place on the list of those next in line to receive homes.

``He says it will be ready soon and I believe him,″ Silva said.

The houses are not being given away. They cost from $3,000 to $10,000 and payments are equal to 20 percent of a family’s income, with a six-month grace period.

Chavez and those in charge of the ambitious relocation program originally planned to move flood victims to the nation’s interior and urged them to start a new life there. However, only 10 percent took Chavez up on his offer.

``I’ve got sea salt in my veins. There’s no way they are going to get me to move to a farm. I want a new house here, along the coast,″ said Rafael Rivero, a 45-year old dockworker.

Those who have stayed in Vargas have done so with the hope that the roads, schools, hospitals and public services that were wiped out by the floods will be totally rebuilt in 3 to 4 years, as the government has estimated.

Water, electricity, and telephone services have been restored in most areas. Bridges have been rebuilt, and thousands of tons of debris hauled away in the effort to clear main roadways and clogged river canals.

Residents acknowledge that much has been done to restore normalcy. But, they say, much more remains to be done.

In small, hillside slums, water deliveries are often disrupted by rains. Hidrocapital, a private company, estimates that full water service won’t be restored until 2002.

Although main roads have been cleared, side streets and many buildings are still half buried in mud. The state’s main highway has yet to be repaved.

Most residents say the lack of jobs has led to an increase in crime.

Police and military presence is felt in the most populated areas. However, patrols rarely venture into the shanty towns perched precariously on mountain hillsides.

Antonio Gomez, 45, is afraid to leave his house at night. On his way to the water well in the mornings he finds empty bullet cartridges

``The police don’t come up here at night when gun shots are heard,″ he said. ``They only come up in the morning when there are dead bodies to take away.″

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