The steep mountainside roads that once snaked through the sprawling Caracas shantytown of Blandin have vanished under thick sheets of rock and tree trunks, crushed concrete and mangled tin roofs.
Cars have been hurled through the walls of what used to be kitchens and bedrooms. The bodies of four people were still entombed in one of the flattened vehicles today, a numbing image of the swift destruction that swept through Blandin last week, leaving nearly a quarter of the neighborhood's 4,000 residents dead or missing.
As survivors sifted through the debris to salvage what they could, Carmen Leon stood at a blown-out window of her gutted home longing for her 71-year-old father. "He was inside the house, and the water just carried him and everything else away. We are still looking for him, but he is probably dead, buried alive like most of the other victims were," Leon said, as a photo of her father flapped in the breeze on a nearby wall.
"Death is everywhere now . . . under my feet and under what is left of this place," she said.
The death toll from the massive flooding and mudslides that ravaged Venezuela last week will likely top 10,000 and could reach 20,000, Foreign Minister Joe Vicente Rangel said, although he stressed that the full number of those who lost their lives may never be known.
"Any figure that we give is more in the realm of speculation than reality," he told reporters. Rangel said military rescue workers had recovered 1,500 bodies so far. "There are bodies in the sea, bodies buried under mud, bodies everywhere," he said.
An estimated 140,000 people have been left homeless by the flooding, many of them seeking refuge in overcrowded shelters. Tens of thousands of people roamed the streets in search of food and water. Hundreds of people, many of them barefoot, ransacked the country's main cargo port at La Guaira, forcing troops to fire into the air to break up the crowd.
Although the economic cost of the disaster is impossible to gauge, officials estimated that 200,000 businesses were affected by the flooding at a time when Venezuela is grappling with its deepest recession on record.
The mounting toll from one of the most devastating natural disasters ever to hit this country touched off an urgent international relief effort. The Clinton administration announced that the United States is spending $3 million for relief supplies and sending 10 military helicopters and seven large cargo planes to the flood zone.
The disaster, triggered by days of torrential rains, has forever changed hundreds of communities like Blandin, one of the many shantytowns that sprouted up here over the past several decades as poor rural Venezuelans and others from neighboring Latin American countries moved to the Caracas area in search of better lives. They claimed mountainside plots of land and quickly erected crude homes, many precariously perched on ridges, with little government oversight or control.
The area hit hardest by the flooding stretched along the northern Caribbean coast from the capital as far west as the Colombian border, 350 miles away, a region where the vast majority of the country's 23 million people live. The raging flood waters and avalanches of mud, rock and debris devoured thousands of flimsy homes, as well as some sturdier ones, and engulfed high-rise buildings in low-lying towns and cities.
Frantic rescue operations involving about 12,000 troops picked up pace today as helicopters plucked more people to safety from coastal areas overrun by murky flood waters and rivers of of mud, bringing the total of those airlifted out of devastated sections of the country to more than 44,000. Soldiers also started scouring remote mountain areas on horseback hoping to find survivors, while additional paratroops were dropped into rugged, isolated regions to deliver supplies to people still waiting to be rescued.
Passengers aboard a military rescue helicopter flying over a stretch of coast in Vargas state north of Caracas witnessed enormous devastation. Los Corales, a town of upscale apartment buildings near La Guaira, the state capital, looked like a lunar landscape, its streets and parking lots covered with piles of broken rocks and dirt. A handful of people milled about outside a row of buildings, all of which appeared to be abandoned.
A beach was littered with large tree trunks that obscured the sand. Several hundred yards down the coast, throngs of people carrying their possessions poured onto a Venezuelan warship. Three other naval vessels, part of a massive air-and-sea rescue operation, approached the shoreline, where a thick brown film of mud filled the waters.
"All day and night, there are huge numbers of desperate people walking around the beach like zombies," said Maj. Jesus Rodriguez of the Venezuelan National Guard, one of the six crew members aboard the helicopter, which was flying from the country's main international airport outside Caracas to Caraballeda, north of Los Corales, to deliver provisions and pick up stranded residents. The airport has been turned into a disaster relief center, and officials said it would be closed for at least another week.
"When the groups are big enough on the beach, we just land and herd them on board and hope the best for them once we arrive back at the base," Rodriguez said. "Riding with them, you can almost feel the anxiety that they are suffering."
The Bell 412 helicopter--hauling canned tuna, sardines, baby food, diapers, bottled water, milk and soda--cut a path between several high-rise buildings and landed on a grass field where a Red Cross flag had been planted. Dozens of people swarmed the aircraft to grab the supplies, using wheelbarrows and wheelchairs to haul them away.
Within minutes, 18 people jammed the helicopter, which has made about 80 runs daily since the weekend, during one of which a woman gave birth. "I think everything is going to be okay now. We lost everything, but now we are going to a better place," said a young survivor, Dolly Fepez, 12, who anxiously clutched a large tape player as the helicopter flew along a mountainous expanse checkered with shanties that had collapsed under the weight of mud flows and rain.
Although rain had been falling over Venezuela for most of the past two weeks, it grew in intensity Wednesday before subsiding over the weekend. In mountainous areas, rivers, streams and creeks overflowed their banks, touching off mudslides.
In dozens of interviews, Venezuelans said they had received no warnings from the government or orders to evacuate, except in the case of the area of El Guapo in the state of Miranda, where Gov. Enrique Mendoza ordered evacuations before a large dam broke on Wednesday. Even so, large numbers of people were said to have been killed in the state in the subsequent flooding.
In Blandin, Jose Laya, 52, surveyed the ground where his home of 11 years stood.
"I have lived through one earthquake and other terrible things, but nothing in my life has compared to this," he said. "I will never forget the chaos and yelling . . . and the loud roar that the floods made. You can never forget something so savage."
CAPTION: Venezuelan rescue workers carry a woman on a stretcher to a warship evacuating flood victims.
CAPTION: Mudslide survivor Argenis Lopez takes a break from searching through what remains of his destroyed house in Caracas. Officials estimate that 140,000 have been left homeless by the natural disaster, Venezuela's most devastating in more than 50 years.
CAPTION: A woman covers her face as rescue workers dig out the bodies of some of her neighbors in the Blandin neighborhood of Caracas. Nearly a quarter of the community's 4,000 people are dead or missing.