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A first look at whether the new Vargas tragedy could have been averted

By Miguel Octavio | The Devil's Excrement


14.02.05 | During the last week, the weather in Venezuela has been extremely atypical with rainfall establishing records and flash floods killing over one hundred people while thousands have lost their homes. This is obviously an abnormal natural phenomenon and nobody can be blamed for it. However, the case of Vargas state, a densely populated and small state north of Caracas, is very particular, because that state was the victim of an even larger tragedy in December 99, when tens of thousands were killed due to generalized mudslides.


That tragedy was like nothing Venezuela has ever seen in its history, coinciding the peak of the mudslides with the referendum ratifying the new Bolivarian Constitution proposed by Hugo Chavez. After the tragedy, Chavez created the “Unique Authority for the Reconstruction of Vargas State” which was presided by Carlos Genatios who had been Minister of Science as well as Minister of Infrastructure. That authority was put in charge of developing the plans for the reconstruction of the state, obtaining the funds and coordinating the effort to insure that the appropriate canalization would be built to avoid a similar event.


Vargas State


Vargas state is a rather small and densely populated state whose history is strongly tied to the history of Caracas. The state is long and extends along the northern Coast of Venezuela right north of Caracas, as shown in the map below, where the orange part is the Federal District of Caracas and the pink area is Vargas State. Vargas has been a state since mid-1998. Before that, it had been a “Federal Territory” and even earlier a municipality that was part of Caracas. The history of Vargas is closely tied to Caracas. In its earlier days, all commercial traffic to Venezuela entered via the port of La Guaira, with the rest of the state being isolated farms in its Eastern part devoted to the cultivation of cocoa. Later, the main airport for Caracas, Maiquetia, was built there (see map).(Note that there is a mountain range separating those towns in Vargas and Caracas, which is 1,000 meters (3000 feet) above sea level)



Before the Caracas-La Guaira highway was built in the 1950’s (a rise of 3,000 feet in only 10 miles), people went down to Vargas from Caracas via the old highway or the railroad. Some people would own or rent little townhouses, mostly in the town of Macuto (see map) which was the main tourist destination of vacationing Caraquenos. When the highway was built, construction began on apartment buildings and beach clubs for vacationing, which dotted the state all the way to Camuri, making the economy very dependent on Caracas. Later, many of these communities became also dormitories of Caracas, with people living there and coming to work to the city daily. Beyond Camuri, there was a Government built “workers paradise” built by Dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez and beyond that a bunch of towns joined by a road whih has never been fully complete.


As is usually the case, people took advantage of the topography of the state. In this case, all of these towns were located in a sort of one dimensional strip line with population centers in land areas formed in time by nature, as water, mud and rocks came down from the mountain range. In fact, a satellite photo of the area shows that most of the towns along the Coast are on sort of protuberances formed by the rivers that come down from the mountains. There are 23 such brooks or rivers to the East of Maiquetia where the Caracas internationa airport is located.


A tale of two tragedies


While the Government has been selling the idea that the 1999 tragedy and this one are similar in scope, this is simply not true. The 1999 tragedy was truly a “one hundred year” phenomenon. There was continuous rain for forty days. In the last fifteen days rains increased their intensity and in the last three days a total of 1000 millimeters (39. 4 inches) of rain were recorded. In contrast, only 4 inches of rain fell in the two and a half days of rain earlier this week.


Thus, in the 1999 floods, water had saturated the ground to the point that the new rains flowed all above ground, leading to mudslides all the way from the top of the mountain range which is as high as 2980 meters (9776 feet) in height. Mud, rocks and water came tumbling down the mountain taking everything on its way with it. This is what is called in Spanish a “deslave”. There is a very good gallery of pictures from that tragedy here, from which I have stolen four, to indicate the magnitude of what happened. Notethe size of the mudslides in the first two, its height in the third one and the "scratches" on the mountains as the water washed all of the topsoil.




This time around, what we have had up to now, cross your fingers, is simply flash flooding with mud and sediments being moved at the lowest level, but so far there has been no rocks or mud coming from the mountains.


The deslave is a phenomenon that has been known to occur every fifty years or so, the previous one on record taking place in 1951. In contrast, there have been torrential rains before, but never had their impact been so large. True, the amount of rainfall was the highest for any two day period, but there have been comparable periods recorded before.


The Reconstruction


After the tragedy in 1999, the Chavez administration created the Autoridad Unica de Vargas and put in charge of it Engineer and Professor Carlos Genatios. This office coordinated a project that involved all of the aspects of the reconstruction of the state, from building the new roads and bridges, to the new canalization of all of the 23 rivers that come down from the mountain, ending with the urban planning surrounding al of it. The projects originated in a combination of studies and plans made by engineering firms and academic institutions. The academic institutions, mainly Universidad Central de Venezuela, Universidad Simon Bolivar and Universidad Metropolitana, worked mostly for free.


Right after the tragedy, the US Government sent three ships with members of the US Core of Engineers to donate the road that needed to be built from Macuto to Los Caracas. The estimate was that this could be done in sixty days. After the ships were on the way, the Venezuelan Government, which had initially asked for the engineers, said they were not needed. No such road has completely been built in the last four years.


When the plans and projects were completed, Genatios himself addressed the nation to tell people about the plans. A little more detail is found here.


The Venezuelan National Assembly approved US$ 1 billion for the project, which at the time was hailed as the showcase for how effective the revolution could be. This was on top of another US$ 200 million used for the clean up, as well as international contributions in the amount of roughly US$ 185 million.  The project in fact had detractors within the Chavez administration. To some, Vargas represented what was wrong with the population distribution in Venezuela; they disagreed with devoting huge resources to promote that concentration. In fact, many of those displaced by the tragedy were relocated in the so called “Orinoco-Apure axis”. Most of them returned to Vargas when they could not find jobs in that area.




The Autoridad Unica executed some of the initial plans for the project, mostly the clean up and removal of mud, rocks and debris and the initial build up of roads. At that point, the Government created Corpovargas, a development corporation to execute the plans which had been budgeted. The first President of Corpovargas was an engineer, the next two military officials.


To date, Corpovargas has completed only 4 of the 23 canalization projects included in the original design, it has done little in terms of urban planning and has only built a few of the new bridges that were contemplated in the original project. What is worse is that the carefully designed projects by the Autoridad Unica were all ignored and designs were changed. Let’s look at four cases:


-Camuri Grande Bridge: The Camuri Grande Bridge had been planned to be well above the highest water level of the 1999 flooding. It was supposed to rise from the level of the road, which was overflowed in 1999, on one side and come down on the opposite side. This was bypassed and a simple bridge was built at the same level as the road. This bridge is no longer there, the flood washed it away this week after the water level rose to about one meter (one yard) above the road.


-Carmen de Uria: This was the area most affected by the 1999 tragedy. The road and canalization were never built. This was the first point in which flood wates isolated one side of the state from the other as the coastal highway, which had just been paved superficially, was simply washed away.


-Camuri Chico and San Juan: In these two cases the canalization gave way. In the project as designed by the Autoridad Unica, the retention walls were all concrete with steel bars. In the executed project, it was rock inside steel mesh, which was explicitly discarded in the earlier proposals and studies.


-Roads in general: There were many landslides and the roads gave way in many locations. This is hard to predict where it will occur, but it happened in locations that were supposed to have special reinforcement, like in one of the pictures I show below.


All of this shows a pattern of negligence, incompetence and ignorance which borders on the criminal. Those responsible should be punished and the Attorney General should initiate an investigation with the same expediency and dedication that it does in political cases. But even worse, there is the usual question hanging in the air: Where is the money?


And that is one of the biggest mysteries of the reconstruction project, funds were budgeted to complete the road and all 23 canalization projects. But, designs were changed to make everything cheaper, the road was never finished and only 4 of the 23 canalizations was completed and this was considered to be the top priority in the original project.


The Warnings


There were plenty of warnings about all of these problems. Two people led these charges: the former President of the Autoridad Unica Carlos Genatios and National Assembly Deputy for Vargas state Pedro Castillo. Genatios is still considered to be pro-Government and Castillo is a member of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party. Both have been relentless on their criticism and asking for accountability of how the funds were spent.


El Nacional had excerpts from some of Genatios’ statements:


Dec. 22 2003: "Corpovargas has built open metallic dams, changing the original designs. Some of these dams do not do not fulfill the safety requirements, especially the metallic mesh with rock, which could be destroyed by high water flows, increasing the danger for the population."


Jan. 16 2005: "Projects were changed, they did not use concrete with steel bars and made them open structures, they have done nothing about urban planning and the strict security and risk requirements. It is necessary to act and prevent...Corpovargas can and has to reconsider and repair the public works that were badly built for the good of the population."




I must say that, when I began researching this topic, I did not believe situation was as bad as I have found out. This whole thing is so irresponsible that those Government officials that are saying that it would have been worse if they had not done all of the public works had not been built, should be ashamed of themselves. The Government should look in detail at how the funds were spent and why things were changed. They should prosecute with energy, but I am not very optimistic.


The military and civilians have done a very good job at rescuing and aiding people. Thanks God, they military and the whole civil defense system was already deployed to protect Venezuelans taking their Carnival vacation in the affected areas in Vargas state.


Note Added: Francisco Olivares in today's El Universal describes very much what I posted here last night.

12:49:01 AM    comment [14]

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