Ten years later, many Venezuelans are still suffering their version of Hurricane Katrina — destroyed homes and little hope of help anytime soon.
“It had rained non-stop for two weeks,” says Luis Martinez as he remembers the days leading up to the mudslides of 1999.
On 15 December 10 years ago, Venezuela suffered its worst natural disaster of modern times when a wall of water, boulders and debris came down the side of the Avila mountain.
“If you were in its way, God help you,” said the father of four, who still lives in Vargas, the worst-affected state.
The 1999 floods swept away many buildings
The exact number killed in the tragedy is hard to know, as many bodies were buried under the mud or washed into the sea.
But there are estimates that between 10,000 and 30,000 people lost their lives. Tens of thousands more were made homeless.
I left Venezuela that morning, more frightened than I’d ever been while traveling in my life. I’d been to 37 countries, often alone but never, luckily, caught in a natural disaster. I was there with my friend Gabi, at the end of an incredibly fun week. We’d been to Caracas, to the tiny mountain town of Jaji and out to the Caribbean islands of Los Roques.
We had flown as couriers from New York City, our airfares $300 round-trip on United; being a courier means you don’t have a fare in hand until they hand it to you at the check-in counter as you trade your luggage allowance for their ticket. It means, as we discovered, you’re well and truly screwed as desperate people scrambled to flee in any way possible.
I awoke that morning to a rainfall the likes of which I — and millions of others — had never seen before. My flight home was at 8:00 a.m. and I had to be there by 6:00 a.m, a mere 10 miles or so down the coastal highway from our hotel. I was leaving alone, Gabi the next day. The taxi was really late and I started to panic. I had to make that flight.
It finally arrived, drove a few miles into a sight I will never forget — a six-lane highway entirely flooded. A lake of filthy, opaque brown water. God only knew what lay beneath it — above us, the steep muddy hillsides lay bare after many homes, and their inhabitants, had slid down them. I had never seen anything so terrifying, nor been caught in the middle of it, as potentially vulnerable to becoming trapped in the chaos as any one of those poverty-stricken shanty-town inhabitants. There was nothing to do but pray I could make it to the airport in time to make my plane.
I sat in the cab, watching the filthy water leak through the doors, filling up its floor, staining the hem of my long cotton dress. The cab got a flat tire and the driver changed it, even in a downpour. He gave up after a few miles and I ran, lugging my suitcase, to a bus stop and got onto a bus that went only a few miles, and not to the airport, only into Caracas. Grace of God brought another taxi in time.
I made my flight with nine minutes to spare. Gabi was stuck behind. We didn’t know if she was alive or dead for days as cellphone service did not work. She had to cover her nose and mouth to block the smell of dead bodies, was rescued by the Venezuelan navy and finally managed to get to Aruba from where she flew home, at her own expense.
Say a prayer for these families. They have lived through hell.