Tragedy in Indonesian quake and tsunami brings back memories of hope in Venezuela

By Kenneth D. MacHarg

As I have been reading about the terrible disaster following the September earthquake that destroyed vast portions of the Indonesian coastline along the Central Sulawesi province, I am reminded of a similar disaster which occurred along the Venezuelan coast in 1999. That mudslide killed at least 50,000 and left uncounted thousands more buried.

Even in the face of such an overwhelming disaster, I remember the signs of hope that Christian rescuers and relief workers experienced eighteen months after the Venezuelan tragedy.

More recently, Reuters reports that “the 7.5 magnitude quake on Sept. 28 (2018) brought down shopping malls, hotels and other buildings in the city of Palu, while tsunami waves smashed into its beachfront. But perhaps more deadly was soil liquefaction which obliterated several Palu neighborhoods.

No one knows how many people are missing but the toll is in the thousands, and rescuers say that the number could be in the multiple thousands.

The official death toll had risen to 1,763 by October 7 but bodies were still being recovered.

The state disaster agency said liquefaction destroyed 1,700 houses in one neighborhood alone with hundreds of people buried in the mud. (Soil liquefaction occurs when a saturated or partially saturated soil substantially loses strength and stiffness in response to an applied stress such as shaking during an earthquake or other sudden change in stress condition, in which material that is ordinarily a solid behaves like a liquid. – Wikipedia)

Given the impossibility of removing so much soil, officials in Indonesia said debris would be cleared and areas hit by liquefaction would be turned into parks and sports venues.

Jono Oge in Indonesia was hit hard by liquefaction with dozens of teenagers at a nearby church and Bible camp killed. Many of them lie buried in the mud.

That same impossibility of recovering so many buried bodies faced the Venezuelan workers.

The December, 1999 flood and mudslide disaster in Venezuela may have left up to 50,000 dead.  Catastrophic storms brought massive destruction to hillside squatter communities in the capital Caracas and along the coast.

I visited the disaster site along the Caribbean coast a year and a half after the mudslide. Here are excerpts from my report: Today, neighborhoods still look like scenes from a war zone or earthquake devastation in India, with the exception that most buildings are buried or filled up through the second floor with rocks and mud, their families still entombed inside.

Nobody really knows how many died in the disaster, and few are willing to guess.

“The government says 30,000, I think 50,000, but residents along the coast say more than 100,000,” says Darrell Horn, a Southern Baptist missionary who has worked in disaster relief for the past year and a half.

“I really don’t know how many died,” says Rebecca Domingues who has led her church and other congregations in relief work along the coast. “Just last week they dug out a house and found a whole family, including a baby, buried in there.”

“The problem is that many families have been separated by the government relocation efforts while other families don’t know whether their relatives are living in another city or are dead,” says Berenice Cabrera, director for disaster relief for the Evangelical Council of Venezuela (CEV). “We are working with refugees as far away as Maracaibo (350 miles) who haven’t seen or talked with their families since the floods,” she adds.

There are reminders of the disaster wherever one goes along the coast. Standing on the waterfront amid piles of dirt and rocks, Berenice says that the water line is a block or more away from where it was before the disaster. The sweep of water and mud dumped tons of dirt into the ocean and rescue workers added to the fill as they removed the debris.

“This is a campo santo (a holy ground) declared by the government,” she says. “It’s called that because there are bodies under here that have never been recovered.”

A little while later, as she visits an entire community that was swept out to sea when the river shifted into a new course and washed everyone away, she repeats, “this is campo santo, there are bodies buried under where we are walking.”

The disaster did more than what might be immediately evident. “It not only broke up families, but destroyed social roots and traditions,” reflects Berenice. “Some members of families were loaded onto helicopters or the backs of trucks and taken to settlements across the country. Communities were broken apart. Today, a year and a half later, many families are still separated.”

Missionary Horn knows one mother who waited over seven months to learn that her two teen-age daughters were still alive in another city.

Despite the overwhelming disaster and sobering acceptance of so many disappeared who would never be uncovered, I discovered a moving moment of hope amid the disaster.

“Look, the trees are starting to come back!” Rebecca Domingues points to some shoots pushing up through unbelievable piles of mud and rocks.  

Those leaves demonstrate the hope that is returning to Venezuela’s scarred coastline a year and a half after devastating floods and landslides buried houses and families and swept away entire communities.”

Photos by Kenneth D. MacHarg

(The original articles I wrote about the Venezuelan disaster can be found here:


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