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1999 Vargas mudslides: Map

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A part of Vargas state after the 1999 mudslides
The 1999 Vargas tragedy was a disaster that struck the Vargas State of Venezuelamarker in December 1999. The torrential rains and mudslides that followed on 14 December through 16 killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed thousands of homes, and led to the complete collapse of the state's infrastructure. According to relief workers, the town of Los Corales was buried under three meters of mud and a high percentage of homes were simply swept away to the ocean. Whole towns like Cerro Grande and Carmen de Uria completely disappeared.

Background

A section of "Los Corales", one of the neighborhoods in the Vargas state which suffered the heaviest destruction on 14 December & 15, 1999
The coastal area of Vargas has long been subject to mudslides and flooding; geologicw similar catastrophes occurring with regularity. The most recent major flood was in 1951, however that event did not cause as much damage . The unusually strong storm in December 1999 dumped 911 millimeters of rain over just a few days, triggering soil instability and flow of debris. The state had experienced a lot of population growth and development since the previous major disaster in 1951, thus increasing the toll of casualties.

Response to the disaster

The disaster was of such magnitude that the president of the Red Cross initially presumed more than 50,000 dead. The first priority was to evacuate survivors; more than 100,000 people were ultimately evacuated. After the disaster, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez advocated for other Venezuelans to open up their homes, and "adopt a family". The First Lady of Venezuela arranged the temporary sheltering of children that were feared orphaned in La Casona, the Presidential residence in Caracasmarker . Chavez refused the help of United States soldiers in handling the emergency situation, even though the arrangements had been made and U.S. Navy ships had been already dispatched with men, heavy machines, and aid supplies. Those vessels returned in mid-voyage to their home ports after Chavez rejected their help.

Other people offered help, including Major League Baseball shortstop Omar Vizquel, a native Venezuelan, who helped raise over $500,000 in relief funds.

After the initial emergency response, focus shifted to analyzing the causes of the disaster, and working to create a sustainable infrastructure for dealing with future torrential rains.

Partially collapsed building


Lasting effects

The disaster caused estimated damages of USD $1.79 to $3.5 billion . More that 8,000 homes were destroyed, displacing up to 75,000 people. The mudslides significantly altered more than 60 kilometers of the coastline in Vargas. Over 70% of the population of the state of Vargas was affected by the disaster. All public services, like water, electricity, phone lines, and land transportation (roads and bridges) disappeared. There were no supplies of food and water for months, so most of the population had to be evacuated. Looting and sacking sprouted up everywhere, forcing the military to implement Martial law for more than one year.

The death toll was considered to be between 10,000 and 30,000 — the exact number of casualties is difficult to estimate as there were no reliable census data, especially about shanty towns and small communities that were completely wiped out; moreover, only some 1,000 bodies were recovered, with the rest swept to sea by the mud or buried in the landslides.

By 2006, the state was back to its pre-disaster population level, and infrastructure projects were slowly being carried out to reconstruct the damage caused by the widespread disasters. Nine years after the event, thousands still remain homeless. Real estate loss of worth in zones untouched by the floods was as high as 70%, due to the destruction of infrastructure.

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References

  1. Debris-flow and flooding hazards associated with the December 1999 storm in coastal Venezuela and strategies for mitigation, by Wieczorek, G.F., Larsen, M.C., Eaton, L.S., Morgan, B.A. and Blair, J. L. of the U.S. Geological Survey
  2. Retrospective on the disaster (in Spanish)
  3. "Los barcos que no llegaron" (Spanish - "The Vessels That Did Not Arrive") - Venezuela Analitica
  4. Venezuela's Vargas Disaster Hard to Forget, by Yensi Rivero for Tierramérica



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