The estimated death toll from colossal flooding and mudslides caused by days of drenching rain throughout Venezuela has surpassed 5,000, and the number may climb significantly higher, Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel said today.
The greatest natural disaster to hit this nation in 50 years has transformed vast stretches of the country into debris-strewn lagoons, devouring countless homes and livelihoods at a time when Venezuela was suffering its deepest recession on record.
The flooding has been particularly severe along the northern Caribbean coast, where officials have said it will take years and millions of dollars to repair the devastation. Overall, authorities estimated that 150,000 people have been left homeless.
Air force physician Augustin Martinez, who was working at Venezuela's main airport outside the capital as part of a military rescue operation, said armed forces officials have estimated that as many as 30,000 people may have died. Many bodies have been transported by helicopter to Caracas and provincial towns for identification and burial. Rangel said in a brief interview that he was unaware of the 30,000 figure but said that given the magnitude of the disaster, "it is possible."
President Hugo Chavez, who is commanding a unit of paratroops delivering supplies to large numbers of people still stranded in storm-ravaged areas, said: "I have good reason to think there are bodies we will never find. Who knows how many?"
About 12,000 troops continued rescue operations as helicopters plucked people to safety from sections of the country isolated by high water and towering mounds of mud. Paratroops were dropped into remote areas and scaled down ropes in rugged terrain to reach stranded residents. Others were dispatched to coastal towns to control looting by desperate people displaced by the disaster and others trying to take advantage of the chaos.
In mountainous stretches where many people are believed to have been buried alive by mudslides, rescue dogs scoured for survivors. At the Caracas airport, which has been transformed into a staging area for rescue operations and remains closed to commercial flights, troops and aid workers scurried to help survivors, some elderly and injured, being ferried there aboard helicopters.
"I have lost everything, but I am alive and on the ground," said Marta Marcano, an elderly woman who was carried across the tarmac on a stretcher and into the terminal. "Only a few of my neighbors were on the flight. I think the rest are dead and with God."
International assistance continued to pour in. Cuba sent eight tons of medical supplies and other equipment, along with 200 medical personnel. Mexico contributed two Boeing 727s and two Hercules transport planes along with 220 soldiers and disaster relief experts.
Rain has been falling almost daily over much of Venezuela for more than two weeks, but it reached torrential proportions late Tuesday before tapering off over the weekend. Accurate figures on total rainfall have been elusive, but authorities estimated that some areas of the country had received more than 80 percent of their annual average in the last 16 days. In Caracas, six times the normal average rainfall for December fell over the course of several days last week.
Particularly vulnerable to the heavy rains were urban slums, many of them no more than collections of flimsy hovels perched precariously on steep slopes. Denuded by local residents of natural vegetation that once prevented erosion, they turned swiftly into lakes of mud that poured down the hillsides carrying houses, people and animals with them. In some lower-lying areas, meanwhile, slums that had grown up along the banks of rivers and streams for easy access to water were obliterated when the waterways burst their banks.
While many areas remain under water, the port city of La Guaira has turned into a virtual dust bowl as speeding rescue vehicles have kicked up thick clouds of pulverized dry mud. Scores of people, many wearing masks or covering their faces with cloth, roamed the streets searching for food and water as the smell of death permeated the air.
At one point, pandemonium erupted on the town's main road when troops on an army truck started distributing food. A crush of surging people almost knocked the soldiers off the vehicle.
In Caracas, workers at the Southern Cemetery were digging about 1,500 graves for bodies that were being delivered on an almost hourly basis, most of them unidentified. The cemetery's gates were covered with a patchwork of photos of the dead, some of them grossly disfigured. The pictures had been hung there in the hope that relatives might identify some of the victims.
CAPTION: Venezuelan paratrooper Omar Goitia carries a baby followed by its mother after their evacuation from a home destroyed by massive flooding that officials say is the country's greatest natural disaster in a half-century.