The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Landslides leveled a Venezuelan town. Critics blame government neglect.

Venezuelan officials survey the damage in Las Tejerías caused when five streams overflowed their banks on Saturday. (Miguel Gutierrez/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
6 min

LAS TEJERÍAS, Venezuela Yessenia Galindez was standing in the entrance of her home, about to leave for work, when she felt the water beneath her feet.

The 43-year-old hospital janitor thought it was just a puddle of rain, seeping onto her floor.

But then a wave of murky brown water crashed into her home, knocking Galindez off her feet, dragging her down the road and pushing her up against the walls of her neighbors’ homes as they were quickly covered with mud.

The renegade river carried her brother-in-law out of his home next door. “Hold on!” Galindez shouted as she tried to stretch a leg out toward him. Galindez’s sister cried out for help: Her 1-year-old granddaughter was still inside.

Galindez’s nephew tried to grab the child, but the water pushed the door shut on his hand.

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The 1-year-old girl, whose body was later recovered, was among at least 43 people killed when five streams jumped their banks on Saturday and consumed the town of Las Tejerías, about an hour southwest of Caracas. Torrential rains triggered a landslide that leveled hundreds of homes and left Venezuelans blaming the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro for failing to protect the country’s most vulnerable communities against a disaster caused by foreseeable weather conditions.

At least 56 people remain missing, Interior Minister Remigio Ceballos told reporters in Las Tejerías on Monday. Many people are still trapped under the mud and debris. One of them is believed to be Galindez’s 54-year-old brother-in-law.

Maduro, visiting the community on Monday, described the area as a “total catastrophe.” He said his government had been concerned that the soil was oversaturated after days of heavy rains.

“The mountains were becoming saturated and we ordered them to be checked,” he said. He did not say whether the government took any specific actions. “This is a landslide unlike any we have experienced in many years in Venezuela.”

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Heavy rains are typically seen this time of year in Venezuela and may have been linked to this year’s La Niña phenomenon. The torrential rain in several Venezuelan states over the weekend may have also been connected to activity in the Intertropical Convergence Zone, meteorologists said, or to the impact of the nearby tropical storm, Julia, which strengthened to a hurricane and prompted flooding and mudslides in parts of Central America.

Authorities blamed the deluge in part on weather patterns exacerbated by climate change.

“The effects of the climate crisis are causing this tragedy,” Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said.

But others blamed years of neglect by Venezuela’s crumbling socialist state, which they said had failed to prepare the impoverished communities most vulnerable to flooding.

Valdemar Andrade, a hydrometeorological engineer and retired professor, said the disaster underscored a lack of investment in the country’s water infrastructure and in key tools to help track rain information.

In 1999, the year Hugo Chávez founded the socialist state, the country stopped collecting rainfall information through a national network of the sort used by many countries to measure precipitation, Andrade said. That data is used by engineers to design, update and maintain bridges, reservoirs and other infrastructure.

“Few efforts have been made to reactivate it,” Andrade said. He described the neglect as “very unusual” worldwide.

“In Venezuela, these kinds of intense phenomena shouldn’t surprise us, and we should be better prepared to address them,” said Juan Carlos Sánchez, a former Venezuelan environmental official who participated in the negotiation of the 1992 U.N. Climate Change Convention and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Sánchez said the government must do a better job of alerting communities in the areas most likely to be affected by a natural disaster, particularly now that climate change is making them more frequent.

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From a balcony in Las Tejerías on Monday evening, Maduro said affected families would be housed in shelters while authorities rebuild the properties damaged.

“Rest assured that we are going to recover every last business and every last house,” he said.

Hundreds of government officials, military officers and paramedics descended on the community Monday to survey the damage. At midday, one official asked why bulldozers couldn’t access the area. “The vice president is up there and no one can get in,” another responded.

Townspeople, meanwhile, dug amid smashed cars, felled trees, and mountains of mud in search of missing family members, neighbors and belongings. A few people stood on a bridge, silently looking at what remained of their community.

“This feels like Vargas all over again,” Lourdes López said. Flash flooding in that state in 1999 killed tens of thousands of people, a disaster that still haunts the nation.

Galindez sat atop what used to be her house: a mound of mud, trees, and debris the river had dragged across town. She lost everything but the clothes she was wearing when she was swept away. Her sister’s house, right next door, was covered by sludge. Only the third floor still stands, now just a few yards above the ground.

She walked amid children’s books, other people’s family photographs, rotten food. Then she stopped and took a deep breath.

“Smell that?” she asked. “There have to be more people under here because that’s what death smells like.”

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She recalled how, on the day the river rushed in, her 1-year-old great niece was dancing in the kitchen while Galindez finished decorating cakes for her side job as a baker. “She was a ray of sunshine,” Galindez said, in tears. “She was there, with me, asking me to give her some cake. Hours later, she was gone.”

Her sister, the baby’s grandmother, walked around the rubble, pausing occasionally to look to the sky.

The silence was interrupted only by the occasional sound of machinery digging.

But suddenly, Galindez’s sister began to shout.

“Thank you, God, thank you!” she cried out, holding a small book.

Wrapped in the book, she found $100 in U.S. currency. A day before he disappeared in the mud, her husband had given her the prayer book, which contained a series of verses from the Bible.

“My husband asked me to take care of this,” she said. “And look.”

Calling her family over, she read the Bible verse on the page where her husband had left the cash.

“The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing,” she read. “When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”

Her family members listened until she was finished.

“Amen,” they said in unison.