Vargas Mudslides – 1999

Vargas, in northern Venezuela, lies on the Caribbean Sea. Separated from the capital, Caracas, by the Avila Mountains, it was once densely populated. The mountains form a National Park, within which 23 rivers run down to the coast. Easy to reach from the city, Vargas had many residential communities and a thriving tourist economy.

The disaster that struck in December 1999 was of a magnitude never before experienced. Rain fell continuously for 37 days and the ground was at saturation point. Torrential storms that started on December 14 disgorged 9 m (36 ft) of water. Unable to absorb anything more, the soil finally gave way, bringing water, rocks, trees and mud crashing down the mountains to the sea. The mudslides completely devastated 100 km (60 mi) of coastline, consuming absolutely everything in their path.

Villages, shanty towns and mountainside shacks were buried beneath the mud or swept out to sea, and up to 30,000 people were killed. This figure could be considerably higher as there are no existing records. Over 100,000 people lost their homes and the entire infrastructure of the state – roads, bridges, dams, houses, hotels, apartment blocks, and all the services – vanished in minutes. For weeks there was no access to relief supplies, and hundreds of thousands were evacuated from the area.

President Chavez set up Corpovargas – a development authority to oversee the renewal – and in a speech to the nation promised that about $1.4 billion would be allocated to the clean-up, rebuilding the infrastructure, and the canalization of the rivers, funded by his administration and international contributions. Few of these projects ever came to fruition, and many questions exist as to what happened to the funds. Today, Vargas is a shadow of its former self.

When: December 14-16 1999

Where: Vargas State, Venezuela

Death toll: Unknown, but possibly more than 30,000, died. Only 1,000 bodies were found, the rest were buried under mud or swept out to sea.

You should know: The Venezuelan government asked the US to send engineers to help. The US responded by sending three ships, engineers, and an offer to donate the road needed to link Macuto to Caracas. Venezuela then changed its mind and the ships were obliged to turn back, thus delaying the building of a new road for years.

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