Venezuela sent helicopters and navy ships to evacuate thousands of people stranded by floodwaters Thursday as torrential rains began to ease. The death toll from three days of floods and landslides rose to 16 with thousands left homeless.
Army helicopters landed at the country’s main international airport in La Guaira bringing hungry and shivering victims rescued along the Caribbean coast. Some covered themselves with wet blankets, while others carried babies.
Tears streamed down the face of Mirna Garcia, 36, as she gazed through a chain link fence waiting for a helicopter to appear with her father and husband, whom she feared were trapped in a house in the coastal town of Naiguata.
“I know the authorities are doing what they can to look for them and get them out of there, but I’m afraid for what could have happened to them,” said Garcia, who made it out with her three children.
More than 5,000 people were rescued the mountainous coast in Vargas state, Defense Minister Gen. Jorge Garcia Carneiro told the Venezuelan radio station Union Radio. He said about 2,000 remained to be evacuated from coastal areas blocked by overflowing rivers.
Chavez announces $52 million relief fund
Visiting the area, President Hugo Chavez urged calm. “We are prepared to face a situation like this,” said Chavez, who announced a $52 million fund to help in relief efforts.
Five years ago, catastrophic floods and mudslides in the same coastal state of Vargas killed at least 6,000.
Chavez said this time “a lot more rain has fallen” but he said rescue efforts have been working.
Hundreds of people streamed off a Navy ship Thursday after being evacuated to La Guaira’s port.
More than a dozen military helicopters and 10 navy patrol and transport ships were helping evacuate people, the defense minister said.
Many of the evacuees were tourists who had gone to the beach for carnival earlier in the week. Some came off the helicopters barefoot or in sandals, carrying beach towels and tennis rackets.
Images from the air showed rivers of water, mud and debris winding through coastal towns. Parts of the coastal highway disappeared under landslides.
Torrential rains turned to drizzle in many areas Thursday afternoon.
The death toll rose Thursday to 15 in Venezuela and one in Colombia.
A man died in the Caracas suburb of Los Teques when a landslide came down on his house, said Rodolfo Sanz, an official of Miranda state. Nine deaths were reported in the north-central state of Carabobo, three in the capital of Caracas and two elsewhere.
Hundreds of homes lost
About 3,700 people have had their homes destroyed in the floods since Tuesday, said Antonio Rivero, director of Civil Protection rescue squad.
Thousands more were forced to flee, officials said. Some moved into emergency shelters, while others took refuge with family or friends.
In north-central Colombia, more than 100 homes were destroyed by floods, and a 52-year-old man in the colonial town of Giron died Wednesday when his house collapsed while he was sleeping, said Eduardo Gonzalez, director of the Colombian disaster office.
Venezuela declared a state of emergency in Caracas and six states on Wednesday.
Chavez attributed the heavy rains, unusual for this time of year, to global warming.
“This is the result of those ecological problems of the world that rich countries don’t want to hear about, of global warming,” Chavez said.