After the flood: hope in Venezuela

After torrential rains six months ago, enough mud covered Vargas state to build six Giza pyramids.

Eight-foot-high mud banks festoon Elio Marchesano's seaside barber shop like some kind of macabre garland. Here, he offers $3 haircuts to the few customers still around and laments how little is being done to resurrect this town nearly wiped out by last December's devastating rains and landslides.

"With the political problems between the president and the governor, everything is paralyzed," says Mr. Marchesano, referring to a political falling out between the two leaders. "What happened here was worse than Hiroshima, but you wouldn't know it by the government's attitude. Many of the survivors have left and what wasn't destroyed was robbed. We're here fending for ourselves."

In just three days in mid-December about three feet of rain fell on Venezuela's steep coastal mountain range in the state of Vargas - or double normal rainfall for a year. As a consequence, in a matter of hours enough mud, rocks, and car-size boulders crashed down on Macuto and other communities on the ribbon of land between Venezuela's coastal range and the Caribbean Sea - 15 million cubic meters -to build six of Egypt's Giza pyramids, or two Grand Coulee dams.

But five months after one of the worst natural disasters of the 20th century buried Vargas, the state that for decades was the easy-access playground for the middle and upper classes of Caracas, most residents say their one-time paradise has been forgotten.

Some experts claim that most of the state's 450,000 residents have returned, but a visit here suggests other observers are more accurate when they estimate that about half of Vargas's pre-disaster population is still here.

In Venezuela, people refer to those few days in mid-December simply as "the tragedy," and it's no wonder: Although definitive figures have never been published, Red Cross and other emergency officials estimate that somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people nationwide drowned, were buried in mud, or carried out to sea.

Many neighborhoods still have no electricity or water. Many children who have stayed here have no school, and jobs have been wiped out. Hotels and luxury condos sit vacant and ghostlike. A Wendy's restaurant never opens, its once-bright tubular plastic gym clogged with earth.

Around Mr. Marchesano's shop, now-dried mudflows ooze from houses, businesses, and abandoned cars like icing from a cake decorator.

Impenetrable houses carry spray-painted messages left months ago for neighbors and rescue workers, some happy, some sad: "S. Alvarez family, all well," for example, or "Mr. and Mrs. E. Machado, Q.E.P.D." -a Spanish abbreviation of "May they rest in peace."

The governor of Vargas, Alfredo Laya, has put up billboards promising that out of adversity will come something better. Planning, engineering, and environmental experts say rebuilding better and smarter is possible -but it will take time, patience, and the public's cooperation.

New development that respects nature and anticipates the kind of extreme weather that some experts say could become more common in the future is already on the drawing board, says Emily Mndez, project planner for the federal authority set up in February to rebuild Vargas. But successful reconstruction, she says, will require people giving up what they have come to consider a right, like use of land as they see fit, a home next to a mountain stream, an apartment building facing the sea.

"We know people want things better today, but haste won't make things right," says Ms. Mndez, on loan to the Vargas reconstruction project from Petroleos de Venezuela, the country's national oil corporation. "Lasting improvement will be one way to lessen the blow of the tragedy." In the meantime, many Venezuelans watch the political turmoil that has accompanied the emergency and initial reconstruction efforts in the state, and conclude there is little reason to expect "improvement" from the government.

Within hours of the tragedy, President Hugo Chvez saw it as an opportunity to put his vision of a "civic-military alliance" on public display, says Samuel Moncada, a historian at Venezuela's Central University. Mr. Chvez dispatched troops to Vargas first to rescue survivors, then to protect property and open roads. But Governor Laya, initially a Chvez supporter, saw the heavy military presence as the "destruction of the civil state," Mr. Moncada says.

With relations between the two leaders deteriorating, reconstruction played second fiddle to political confrontation, many residents say. The final breach came during the Easter holiday, when Laya went on national TV to invite vacationers to visit Vargas to see the progress being made in terms of opened roads and cleaned-up beaches.

But the Chvez government asked tourists to avoid Vargas, saying beaches contaminated by untreated sewage and insufficient clean water made former holiday spots health hazards. At that, an enraged governor withdrew his support for Chvez's reelection (yet to be rescheduled following Sunday's postponement).

"A lot of the aid has dried up since," says Sicerine Marbelia, whose five-year-old son, Daniel, sits in Marchesano's one working barber's chair.

Many houses also carry the people's deep mistrust of the government on their walls like badges of honor. "No to bonds!" reads a slogan spray-painted on many buildings, indicating the property owner's rejection of a government plan to expropriate destroyed properties in exchange for a bond.

"Ha!" says Santiago Mata, a former airplane turbine mechanic whose home of 40 years in Macuto, along with his son's home and office, remain full of mud and without services. "We know very well if we accepted that we never would see our money." Ali Gerda, civil defense coordinator for the Caracas federal district, says public officials and property owners are equally to blame for the Vargas tragedy.

"What the river is telling us here is that this is its natural bed," he says, standing over a moonscape of buried houses and crumpled high-rise condos in Los Corales, one of the most devastated communities.

"Fifty years ago there was a similar flood, but no one paid attention to its lessons," adds Mr. Gerda. "Some landowner said , 'I want to put a building next to the riverbed where it will have a clear view out to the sea, and some official ignored the restrictions and issued the permit. That's criminal."

The idea now, planning experts say, will be to leave the floodplains marked by the flooding as reserves for park use -until the next deluge. Then they'll serve as unobstructed channels for carrying water and mud to the sea. At the same time, most of the 2,500 acres of new seafront land created by the slides is expected to be left as open space.

"Our idea is to end up with a technically better state, where risk management, information gathering, and public information will be perhaps the most important part of the plan," says Mndez. For example an early-warning system will be installed in the steep mountain canyons with US assistance.

And despite the general sense of desperation, some residents of Vargas say they have faith a better state is coming.

"They say it will take six or seven years for us to get back to normal, but we can wait," says Hector Gudez, a former human resources manager who now gets by selling sodas at a makeshift cafe on rocky ground covering the neighborhood he once called home.

His house buried, his family joined 12 other families in occupying an abandoned high-rise. Water comes from the river and light from candles, but Mr. Gudez says he never thought of leaving Vargas. "They've got a lot of equipment in here opening roads and cleaning out the rivers. Seeing that progress makes us feel like we can hang on."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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