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Unseasonably heavy rains and flooding over the past week have killed at least 40 people in Venezuela. As many as 15,000 more are estimated to have been left homeless by flooding and massive landslides. Last week the Venezuelan government declared a state of emergency in seven states, and President Chávez approved a US$52 million emergency fund to be spent on rescue operations. Venezuela received over 140 millimeters of rain in the first week and a half of February, compared to the 11mm average. The previous record for February of 59mm was from 1951.

Flooding and landslides have hit poor communities crouched on the hillsides surrounding the Venezuelan capital Caracas and along Venezuela’s coast particularly hard, raising concerns that the 1999 disaster could be repeated. In December 1999, two weeks of heavy rains caused massive mudslides that buried an estimated 15,000 Venezuelans in the coastal state of Vargas.

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Partial changes introduced by the government after the 99 floods, seem to have avoided an even worst tragedy, as the volume of rain Vargas was higher than in 1.999., However, several complains of lack of preparedness by the local government in Vargas have surfaced. The Vargas government in turn has suggested lack of funds by the central government as the reason for not completing all of the suggested changes to prevent floods.

In his semi-regular Sunday television program Aló Presidente, Chávez announced the creation of a special Risk Management system, with a budget of US$1 billion, charged with decongesting high risk areas in an attempt to avert a repeat of the 1999 disaster. Shanty towns precariously balanced along the coastal mountain range have been heaviest hit by the current rain, and are a high priority for the proposed relocation program. In his TV program, Chávez explained that over 20% of Venezuela’s population of 25 million live in the greater Caracas area.

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Though the Risk Management program will have five centers throughout the country, the coastal state of Vargas on the Northern outskirts of Caracas will be given special focus. Chávez also called for the education and training of specialists in risk analysis because “we must be informed, prepared, capable of rehearsing to be able to react before an earthquake or a disaster,” said Chávez.

The Andean region has also been hard-hit by unusally heavy rains, accounting for the lion’s share of reported deaths. Though rains have largely stopped, rescue efforts continue, and the death toll is expected to continue to rise.