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Heavy rain leads to mudslides in Venezuela

Flooding and mudslides caused by extremely heavy rains on this day in 1999 kill thousands in Venezuela. Another 350,000 people, mostly the very poor, were left homeless from the terrible storm.

In the Caracas metropolitan area, about 80 percent of the population was impoverished in the late 1990s. Most of the poor lived in shantytowns on the sides of the mountains near the city. These homes, called ranchos, were illegal and known to be dangerous. However, for many, they were the only homes available. In a typical winter rainy season, about 200 homes were swept away by rain and mud.

The winter of 1999 was even worse, however. A hard rain on December 15 led to mudslides the following morning. Avalanches of mud and rock as much as 20 feet high began sweeping down the hillsides. Thousands of people in their homes were swept up and buried. In some cases, entire neighborhoods were wiped away in an instant. In several places, debris piled up at the bottom of mountains and hills, where it surrounded high-rise apartment buildings. Many people were stuck on their rooftops for days because the mud made leaving their homes impossible. To make matters worse, there was no organized rescue effort.

Many nations sent assistance in the aftermath of the disaster. Thirteen thousand Venezuelan soldiers spearheaded the relief efforts. Still, hundreds of thousands of people remained homeless for weeks after the mudslides. The final death toll is estimated at between 5,000 and 25,000; more exact numbers were impossibly to pin down because it was not known how many people were residing in the shantytowns prior to the slides.

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