Venezuela Floods Kill 5,000

venezuela floods mudslides
Workers at Caracas' cemetery dug 1,500 graves for people buried by a mudslide along the Caribbean coast, and the death toll in Venezuela's worst natural calamity this century rose well into the thousands.

Pictures of the dead, with disfigured faces, were posted at the cemetery's entrance. Hundreds of anxious relatives gathered at the gates praying that none of the photographs belonged to a loved one -- and crying when they did.

Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel said Sunday the estimated death toll had risen to more than 5,000. The second most deadly disaster this century was an earthquake that killed 300 people in 1967.

Another 150,000 are homeless, and at least 6,000 have been reported missing -- many of whom are presumed dead.

The minister said earlier that death toll estimates were based on the large number of people reported missing and the fact that entire towns and coastal regions were flattened by the mudslides.

Some casualty estimates were even higher than 5,000. The El Universal newspaper, the country's main daily, ran a front page article on Sunday citing La Guaira's mayor, Lenin Marcano, as saying he estimated 25,000 dead in the port city.

Early Sunday, Gen. Isaias Baduel, the head of an elite paratroopers' unit leading the rescue effort, said between 500 and 600 bodies had been found in the northern state of Vargas alone. He said the bodies recovered "allow us to make projections that surpass 1,000 dead" in Vargas, and that the toll was likely much higher.

It's not clear how many bodies had been recovered overall, but most of the dead remained buried under rubble and mud.

Survivors wandered through streets Sunday covered with rocks and mud in search of food and water. Disaster relief workers scurried across the tarmac with the wounded at Caracas' international airport. Widespread looting broke out across the northern coastline.

The magnitude of the calamity overwhelmed Venezuela's capacity to respond. Dozens of nations from around the world rushed aid to the South American country. The United States, which gets much of its petroleum from Venezuela, offered two planes and nine helicopters.

On Wednesday, large swaths of Venezuela's northern coast were swept away when torrential rains triggered landslides that crashed down from a mountain separating Caracas from the Caribbean coast.

Many of the dead and wounded were poor people living in shacks made of tin, wood and cinderblock at the foot of Mount Avila. Millions had built homes on the mountainside because they couldn't afford to live anywhere else. For decades, government officials did little to stop them.

Thousands of people remained cut off Sunday, some stranded on rooftops.

President Hugo Chavez dispatched hundreds of paratroopers who descended by rope from helicopters to rescue survivors and provide food and medicine.

In La Guaira, the pungent smell of bodies wafted trough the airport. When trucks or volunteers carrying supplies appeared, residents clamored desperately for a bottle of drinking water or a piece of bread.

The official coordinating the rescue operation, Vice Justice Minister Vassili Kotoski Flores, said hundreds of bodies were found floating along the coast off Vargas state.

President Clinton sent a letter to Chavez expressing his "profound condolences to those who suffered losses," according to a Spanish version of the letter issued by the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry.

Pope John Paul ll on Sunday urged "all institutions and people of good will to contribute generously so that ... the tragic consequences of this great natural disaster can be repaired."

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