Venezuela Death Toll Climbs, Rains Displace Thousands

At least 21 people have died in Venezuela as a result of mudslides and flooding, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency in the capital and three states where thousands of families have been displaced, Vice President Elias Jaua said.

Some 5,600 people have been displaced and more than 56,000 affected by torrential rains that have fallen across 11 states since Nov. 25, Jaua said on state television today.

Landslides destroyed homes in Caracas overnight, killing at least two people and blocking some roads leading to the capital, Jaqueline Faria, head of the Capital District said on state television today. A local government official and a policeman were swept away by a river in northern Vargas state and at least two people were killed in Miranda state, according to local reports.

President Hugo Chavez decreed a state of emergency in Falcon state and approved 20 million bolivars ($4.65 million) to aid 30,000 people who fled the heavy rains that halted some work at the world’s largest refining complex in the Paraguana Peninsula yesterday. The state of emergency was expanded to Caracas, Vargas and Miranda today, Jaua said today.

“The climate will remain unpredictable,” Jaua said. “The government is declaring an emergency as a preventative measure because we’re expecting more rain.”

The government closed schools in the capital and nine states along the northern coast until Dec. 6, Jaua said.

Oil, Housing

Petroleos de Venezuela SA’s 310,000 barrel-a-day refinery remains idled after a power outage and the 645,000-barrel Amuay refinery is now operating normally, a company official said today. Venezuela is South America’s largest oil producer.

The government is using military bases across the country as shelters for families. Chavez on Nov. 28 offered to house as many as 25 families in the Miraflores presidential palace. Air travel and fishing in Falcon state have been suspended, Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami said on state television.

The Maiquetia international airport in Caracas continues to operate normally, Jorge Garcia Carneiro, governor of Vargas, said.

Venezuela suffered a severe drought earlier this year that led to electricity rationing and curbed output at the country’s largest steel mill after water levels dropped in reservoirs behind hydroelectric plants.

La Nina

The La Nina weather cycle that often brings rains to northeastern South America replaced the El Nino cycle that caused the droughts this year, according to the U.K. Met Office.

La Nina is a cooling of the equatorial Pacific Ocean occurring on average every three to five years and lasting nine to 12 months, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Some events have lasted as long as two years.

In the last four months, about 55 centimeters (21.6 inches) of rain has fallen across Venezuela, which is 2.5 times more than normal, according to David Streit, senior lead forecaster at Commodity Weather Group LLC in Bethesda, Maryland.

The jump in rainfall is almost certainly because of La Nina, Streit said.

“It is the primary forcing function,” Streit said. “There may be other things coming into play but I think that is probably the biggest culprit.”

Mudslides north of Caracas killed hundreds of people in December 1999 after torrential rains caused rivers to overflow their banks and swept communities in Vargas state into the Caribbean Sea.

The rains may continue for at least three more days, Jaua told Union Radio.

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