|DISASTER IN VENEZUELA|
December 21, 1999
JIM LEHRER: The deadly rains of Venezuela. We start with a report from James Mates of Independent Television News.
JAMES MATES: If there were any doubts about the destructive power of torrential floodwater, these amateur pictures taken at the height of the storm should dispel them. This was a modern town on Venezuela's coast, it houses for the most part well-built, with bricks and mortar, even reinforced concrete, but they were no match. Whole buildings, almost whole towns washed away. The number of victims now counted in the thousands. The sheer numbers of the homeless and the displaced who have been brought to the capital Caracas are overwhelming the city. This scene is one of many that's been taken over. It's a roof over their head, but there is precious little in terms of essential medical care. In the towns along Venezuela's Caribbean coast, towns that bore the brunt of the rains, it's only too clear that there's going to be no quick return home for these people. Aquila del a Marte came back to the town this morning to see if there was anything left of his home. All he found was rubble. You've lost everything?
VICTIM: Everything, everything. I lost everything.
JAMES MATERS: It's more than three days now since the worst of the rain has ended, but still, water is pouring down through this town. Unbelievable as it may seem, there was no river here before, not even a road. These were all houses, simply ripped away by the torrents of water that poured down from those hillsides. It's thought so many people are still unaccounted for because they are either still buried underneath this mud or washed a few hundred yards further down this hill and straight out to sea. Lists of the missing still hang on the walls of municipal buildings, lists now thousands of names long. The priority, though, with the ever-growing threat of disease, is burying those known to have died. Hundreds of graves are being dug all over this region, simple memorials to the victims of the worst natural disaster to hit Venezuela in living memory.
|Assessing the damage|
JIM LEHRER: For more on this tragedy we go to Alfredo Toro Hardy, Venezuela's ambassador to the United States; and John Clizbe, vice president of disaster services for the American Red Cross, which is taking a leading role in the rescue and relief efforts in Venezuela. Mr. Ambassador, the figure, the death toll figure that is being used today is 30,000. Is that anywhere near a final or firm figure?
ALFRED TORO HARDY: Well, I think it's very difficult to have a precise figure, probably it's somewhere around 10,000 people and 20,000 people. It's difficult to have the exact number due to the fact that entire villages were swept away, but due to the fact, too, that this is a transient area. It's in the near vicinity in Caracas. Many people go there to spend the day at the beach and the coastal area. So it's difficult to access how many people we have there.
JIM LEHRER: We have a map up there that you can see, can you not, Mr. Ambassador?
ALFRED TORO HARDY: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: It shows where Caracas is and the part there on the screen to the left is where the heavy part where the disaster was.
ALFRED TORO HARDY: Indeed, right, the part of the state where the heavy part of the disaster occurred, yes.
JIM LEHRER: Can you explain exactly what happened? We know it rained heavily, 12 inches of rain. But then what happened? What caused this tremendous onslaught of mud?
ALFRED TORO HARDY: Well, especially when you talk about the Vargas state, you have to bear in mind that you are talking of very high mountains, and the coastal area, which is very narrow. So after three days of heavy rains, well, the mountain began to slip away and trees and rocks began to fell, and that caused the rainfalls. I think the bad weather was predictable, but the consequences of the bad weather, they were totally unpredictable.
JIM LEHRER: Has anything like that ever happened in that area before?
ALFRED TORO HARDY: No. This is the first time.
JIM LEHRER: So it isn't like a case in our country where they talk about a flood plain, people build on a flood plain and they can expect flooding. Nothing like this had ever happened before?
ALFRED TORO HARDY: Indeed. It's the first time it happened, yes.
JIM LEHRER: Now, the homeless; in addition of course to the dead and injured, now, the injured, you have no figure on, do you, at this point?
ALFRED TORO HARDY: Around 5,000 people.
JIM LEHRER: Known to be in hospitals or under treatment of some kind?
ALFRED TORO HARDY: Indeed. The homeless are around 100,000 people.
JIM LEHRER: And those mostly are in Caracas, right?
ALFRED TORO HARDY: Caracas and other important cities of the country, but mostly Caracas, indeed, yes.
|Search and rescue|
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Clizbe, what is the focus now of the rescue effort? What's going on down there as we speak?
JOHN CLIZBE: Well, I think the most important part is getting people who are still in the affected areas out of those areas, and so the Venezuelan government and military are evacuating people as quickly as possible. Then there's the challenge of feeding and caring for those who have been evacuated, making certain that they have shelter and food and water and minimal clothing and that kind of thing. Right now we're very much in kind of the emergency rescue phase and caring for those who are able to come out of the affected areas.
JIM LEHRER: So you're still concentrating on saving live, it's not necessarily just finding the dead and burying them and taking care of the homeless. But there are still people at risk, is that right?
ALFRED TORO HARDY: Most of the people who are... in isolated areas have been rescued. But you have still people who haven't been rescued. But in any case, 7,000 paratroopers have been sent to those areas, so as to take care of those people, to take care of feeding them and giving them protection and an organized life until the time that they could be rescued, which it is supposed to happen in the next hours.
JIM LEHRER: I see. Now, Mr. Clizbe, what is it that is coming in from the outside? What kind of help do the Venezuelans need, and is it being provided?
JOHN CLIZBE: Yes, I think it is beginning to be provided. For the American Red Cross, for example, we have been working very closely with the Venezuelan government and the Venezuelan Red Cross to access the needs that are there. And initially we sent in a planeload of about 50,000 pounds of sheets and blankets and water containers and hygiene kits. But now we're really trying to focus on ways in which we can take the contributions that are made to the American Red Cross and working with the Venezuelan Red Cross make most of the purchases right there in Venezuela. That addresses the needs obviously of the people that have been affected and it avoids some of the logistics changes of moving things in from the outside. But it also contributes to restimulating the economy of Venezuela.
JIM LEHRER: And that is there? In other words, Venezuela has enough food and shelter and equipment to take care of this, it's just a case of getting it allocated, is that right?
JOHN CLIZBE: For the most part. I think as we work with the government, certainly there will be some things that are identified that they would like to have brought in from the outside. But the first priority is to take advantage of the resources that are right there in Venezuela already and use the goods and the materials that exist there, purchase them and make them available to the people who need them.
JIM LEHRER: Anything you want to add to that, sir?
ALFRED TORO HARDY: Well, you have to remember that we have to shelter and feed 100,000 people. In the immediate period perhaps we have the necessary supplies. But as time passes, we will be needing additional supplies, and that's why it is important to have international aid in this instance.
JIM LEHRER: Give us some perspective here. 100,000 people -- most of them have gone to Caracas. How big a city is Caracas, and what kind of facilities does it have?
ALFRED TORO HARDY: Caracas is around six million people. Facilities, there are immediate facilities to shelter them, but of course, those are temporary facilities. We have to provide at least 50,000 new homes for the homeless, and that is a tremendous task for any country or for any government.
JIM LEHRER: What about damage to the infrastructure, roads, highways, that sort of thing?
|$20 billion in losses|
|JOHN CLIZBE: Well, that's been a real challenge in itself.
That's why I think the government and the military was working so hard
to get into some of these areas. They were inaccessible.
JIM LEHRER: By helicopter?
JOHN CLIZBE: They had to get in by helicopter, and even sometimes that was difficult. That part of the infrastructure, I think, has been very sorely tapped. There's going to be a major rebuilding effort that's going to have to occur.
JIM LEHRER: Help us understand how mange a rebuilding effort this would be, sir.
ALFRED TORO HARDY: We're talking about $20 billion in loss, probably, and up to five years in rebuilding effort.
JIM LEHRER: And like what?
ALFRED TORO HARDY: We are talking about bridges. We are talking about roads, the whole coastal roads, which was very important, coastal... which was a very important road, was totally destroyed. We are talking of the - airport, which is the most important port in the country, which has suffered huge losses, huge damages. We are talking of huge infrastructure losses, but at the same time, we are talking about at least 50,000 houses that have within destroyed.
JIM LEHRER: The Red Cross is in the disaster business. I was reading comparisons today, and it said, if, for instance, the 30,000 death toll held, and ambassador you have said that it probably will not be that high, but whatever it is, this is nearly or pretty close to or maybe surpassed being the largest disaster of this kind in Latin America. Is that correct?
JOHN CLIZBE: I believe so, yes. Hurricane Mitch a couple years ago was devastating in Central America, but the number of deaths were not as great as are projected as possible in Venezuela.
JIM LEHRER: Can you help us understand how this compares, just in terms of a disaster relief operation?
JOHN CLIZBE: Well, I think what's particularly devastating about this is that it has all the attributes of an earthquake or a tornado with a tremendous immediate devastation and then the long-term affect effects of floods and water damage everywhere. And so it's a combination of the worst of two worlds. It just encompasses everything you don't want to have happen when it a disaster strikes. It is unusually complex and devastating for the people there.
JIM LEHRER: Do you feel from your government's point of view that everything is working, everything is being done that can be done at this point and that the Red Cross, the United States government, and other governments of Latin America and of the Americas are helping you out and doing what needs to be done?
ALFRED TORO HARDY: Undoubtedly. We have been receiving very good help from the Red Cross, from the Venezuelan Red Cross, from the American Red Cross, International One. The American government has been very helpful. They have provided several helicopters, airplanes and a good deal of help. And at least 25 governments are helping in this effort. And we are very grateful for all those... all the help we are receiving at the time, yes.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Mr. Clizbe, you have a number and an address, do you not, that we have put up on the screen. If anybody wants to help, there it, is the International Response Fund. That's your organization, right, the Red Cross?
JOHN CLIZBE: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Let me read this: Post Office Box 37243, Washington, D.C., 20013. If you want to call, it's 1-800-HELP NOW, and if you want to do it in Spanish, it's 1-800-257-7575. I'll leave that up for a count of one, two, three. Gentlemen... yes?
ALFRED TORO HARDY: I should add to that, to the relief of the Venezuelan floods, which is part of the...
JIM LEHRER: Right. In other words, when they call, they should say that, is that what you mean -- for the relief of the Venezuelans. Gentlemen, thank you both very much for being with us tonight. And our best to you both.
ALFRED TORO HARDY: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: Particularly to you Mr. Ambassador.
ALFRED TORO HARDY: Thank you.
JOHN CLIZBE: Certainly. Thank you.