Blame for Venezuelan Mudslides Is Laid More to Terrain Than `Bret'


CELIA FONSECA stood in front of her shack in the Caracas barrio called Vengaz watching workers dig at the tons of earth that buried alive 25 of her neighbors on Aug. 8.

Already 75 bodies have been recovered from a half-dozen sites such as this - steep, crowded hillsides that slipped after tropical storm Bret drenched the brown soil with the heaviest downpour in years. The death toll is expected to reach 200 nationwide.

The destruction was most severe in areas where people built homes on unstable land.

"I knew it was dangerous to live here," said Mrs. Fonseca, squinting up at the raw earth wall, topped by still more houses, looming 200 feet above the pit where her neighbors died. "But we had no place else to go."

Inside the shack her husband built 10 years ago, four rooms separated by shoulder-high plywood walls and curtains held a few of her three children's dolls, the family mattresses, two gas burners, an old radio, and some plastic bags with clothes on the damp cement floor.

President Ramon Velasquez called Bret the worst disaster to hit Venezuela since an earthquake in 1967. In addition to the many dead, hundreds were injured and 11,000 are homeless. By contrast, only 17 people died when Hurricane Andrew, three times as powerful as Bret, struck the southeastern part of the United States a year ago.

Some 40 percent of Caracas's 2.5 million people live in barrios or slums called "ranchos," built without plans or title to the land by hundreds of thousands drawn to this city during the oil boom years of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Similar slums, constructed on land vulnerable to flooding and landslides, exist in Rio de Janeiro, the Peruvian capital of Lima, and other cities.

"You can't build here, it's impossible," says Enrique Marcano, an engineer with the fire department directing emergency rescue work. "The rain makes the earth like a sponge. When it hits a level where the earth is impermeable, the earth above it slips."

Shoring up the hillsides with cement posts or facing is too expensive and will not work here because the earth simply turns to mud when wet, says Mr. Marcano. He says the geology is different across the valley, where richer Venezuelans have been able to construct luxury high-rises built on posts. Cement surfaces prevent mud slides.

The land under the new United States Embassy, which is under construction on a steep hillside overlooking the city, has been shored up with more than $1 million worth of reinforcements.

Teolinda Bolivar, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the Central University of Venezuela, says the ranchos need to be inspected by city officials. Some dwellings would have to be abandoned, but others could be reinforced. "The barrios have to be valued," she says, but adds: "You need a plan, and the barrios have no plan."

More than 500 barrios have been established by squatters around Libertador, as the Caracas downtown area is known. The government provided materials to build water systems and drains, says Dr. Bolivar, who has studied the barrios since 1969, but little technology was provided and the construction was shoddy.

Money available to assist the barrios when Venezuela's oil exports brought top dollar during the oil boom was largely spent to paint facades and put tile roofs on houses in order to improve the appearance of the shantytowns, she says. The country's current economic crisis makes structural improvements unlikely.

"Since the 1960s we have been saying in the newspapers that it is unsafe for people to live in the hills. We must find solutions," says Bolivar. "You can't say it is dangerous and leave them. If there is an earthquake, the destruction will be far, far worse than it is today."

The search for scapegoats for the disaster is on. One newspaper, El Mundo, blamed speculators who buy, sell, or rent houses in the ranchos. Solid ones near the road can cost up to $25,000.

Caracas Governor Cesar Rodriguez blamed the housing crisis, which prompts people to live on the dangerous hillsides, on immigration from the countryside and neighboring countries of Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. He proposes returning migrants to their home states and deporting undocumented foreigners.

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