- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 1999

U.S. helicopters swooped down yesterday on the devastated Caribbean coast of Venezuela to rescue survivors from flooding now estimated to have killed more than 30,000 people, which would make it the Western Hemisphere's second-worst disaster this century.
"The exact number of people who died never will be known," civil defense agency chief Angel Rangel told Agence France-Presse yesterday. "We are talking about thousands upon thousands. It could be 30,000 to 50,000."
U.S. military transport planes arrived at Caracas airport with body bags, diapers, water, medicine, blankets and plastic tarps for survivors, a U.S. Embassy spokesman in the capital, Caracas, said by telephone yesterday.
More than 68,000 people have been airlifted or bused from the disaster zone along the Caribbean coast to Caracas and other cities, Defense Minister Raul Salazar told reporters in the capital.
President Hugo Chavez, who ordered his army to direct the rescue and evacuation efforts, thanked the United States and other donors yesterday even as international organizations pledged additional aid.
"I will talk to President Clinton tonight to thank him," he said. He also thanked Brazil, Cuba, France and Mexico for sending aid.
A populist soldier who was jailed for attempting a coup in 1992, Mr. Chavez has sparked controversy by befriending Cuban leader Fidel Castro, attacking the elite establishment and winning a vote last week that approved a new constitution.
While Mr. Chavez's foreign minister has played down U.S. aid, the United States is by far the biggest donor to relief efforts.
The U.S. military's seven Black Hawk helicopters and one Chinook chopper had rescued 3,680 flood victims by midday yesterday, said U.S. Embassy spokesman John Law. An additional Black Hawk and Chinook are to arrive tomorrow.
Venezuelan military helicopters have rescued thousands more victims in spectacular operations in which troops rappelled down ropes to save people stranded by floods.
Heavy rains last Tuesday and Wednesday softened the steep mountains towering above a mile-wide coastal plain stretching for some 70 miles eastward from Caracas.
Mud, water, boulders, trees and houses tumbled onto the flatland, crushing houses and cars and burying whole villages. The same rains triggered other landslides causing less death and destruction elsewhere in Venezuela.
Most of the damage came during last Wednesday's voting for a new constitution, but rescue workers are only now discovering the extent of the losses. Some survivors bitterly noted that instead of warning people to evacuate, the government was busy urging people to get out and vote.
One U.S. C-130 military transport has been arriving each day this week at the Caracas airport, which has been closed to commercial flights for the next few weeks. Maiquetia airport, on the coast in Vargas state, is in the midst of the worst of the flood damage.
The steep road up to Caracas from the airport has been severely damaged but remains open though limited to survivors leaving the flood zone and emergency personnel moving into it.
Although Venezuela is in a recession, Mr. Chavez has pledged to provide safe housing and jobs for an estimated 150,000 people uprooted by the disaster. More than 23,000 homes have been completely destroyed, the president said.
The number of dead may never be accurately known since thousands may be buried under the now-hardened mud and many others were washed out to sea.
The estimate by the Venezuelan authorities of 30,000 dead is surpassed this century only by the 66,000 killed by a 1970 earthquake in Peru.
The next-largest disasters were the Nevado de Ruiz volcanic eruption and mudflow, which killed 25,000 in Colombia in 1985, and an earthquake that killed 23,000 in Guatemala in 1976.
While Venezuelans have responded with generosity and speed to rescue the victims and supply aid. Some violence erupted yesterday when looters defied orders to disperse and observe curfews in the port town of La Guaira, not far from the airport. National Guardsmen fired into the air.
Some families refused to be evacuated fearing looting of their possessions. But they found no drinkable water in the flood zone and faced the growing stench of the dead. Officials warned of possible epidemics among children suffering from diarrhea and dehydration.
The disaster has not halted Mr. Chavez's sweeping political reforms, aimed at ending corruption in the judiciary and ending the stranglehold on politics by the Democratic Action and Social Christian parties.
Venezuela on Monday formally adopted its new constitution, under which the country was formally renamed the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela."
Officials said elections for a new Congress scheduled for early next year might be postponed because of the tragedy. Mr. Chavez then might rule without a Congress to check his power.
"This could have been a day of national celebration," said Luis Miquilena, who heads the Constitutional Assembly. "Unfortunately we are in national mourning."

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