Panicked locals in towns on the banks of the Rio Limón in Aragua state, Venezuela, fled for their lives as the river overflowed on Wednesday, flooding entire highways and sweeping away anything in its path.
Ongoing heavy rains for two weeks caused the flooding, Venezuelan outlets reported, noting that some locals indicated that poor infrastructure after 20 years of socialist rule exacerbated the damage. Videos from affected neighborhoods show residents fleeing to upper floors of their homes while muddy water blasted through the gates of their homes, people filming the river consuming highways and the cars on them at a rapid pace, and some graphic images showed at least one man swept away by the river.
The socialist leadership under dictator Nicolás Maduro estimated that the river destroyed between 80 to 100 homes, but claim it did not identify any missing or dead. Those on the ground say, however, that they personally witnessed people swept away and it is too early to definitively state that the flooding did not kill anyone. Some reports indicated that entire towns on the banks of the river remain incommunicado as of Thursday, as local authorities cut the power from towns to avoid electrocutions. Venezuela’s already extremely weak power grid also allows for poor access to electricity even outside of times of natural disasters.
“Residents assert that this new overflow is a tragedy as, although it is too early to confirm deaths, they have seen the waters sweep away people, as well as goods including furniture and vehicles,” Venezuela’s El Nacional noted on Wednesday. The newspaper added that the reports of extreme skepticism towards chavista socialist officials followed calls to disregard emergency warnings in at least two communities, La Punta and Mata Redonda, locations that El Nacional describes as “high-risk” due to their proximity not just to the river, but Lake Valencia, the nation’s third-largest.
The Venezuelan outlet El Pitazo compiled videos published on social media of the damage. The first video appears to show the river consuming a highway, and the cars on it, from above. A second video shows the river swallowing a large road from the ground level; the person filming appears to run away and then up the stairs of their home as the water chases them.
Videos from other areas near the river similarly showed entire highways flooded by rapidly flowing water. In one particularly graphic video, the person recording managed to film a person carried by the heavy water, raising his hand in an bid to attract the attention of rescuers. Some online reports claim that rescuers saved the man in the video, though his identity and fate remain unconfirmed.
— Lohena Reverón (@lareveron10) September 9, 2020
Catholic faithful affected by the flooding posted a video offering some hope following the Limón River receding: their Holy Sepulcher at the Santa Cruz Chapel survived the flooding unscathed, even as the chapel itself suffered significant damage.
#9sep Como un milagro, el río El Limón cambio su cauce. El Santo Sepulcro que reposa en la Capilla Santa Cruz, quedó intacto y así lo sacaron los devotos vecinos en medio de escombros y lodo. Dios sigue teniendo misericordia de este pueblo#ElLimón #Aragua pic.twitter.com/uaL2WzWDQh
— Gregoria Díaz (@churuguara) September 10, 2020
— Lohena Reverón (@lareveron10) September 9, 2020
“At the moment there have NOT been reports of missing persons,” the official account of the Aragua Fire Department posted on Twitter Wednesday. “The overflow from the Limón River has waned and is tending back to normalcy.”
Yet the next day, El Nacional reported that at least three communities along the river — Ocumare de La Costa, Cata, and Cuyagua — had no way of communicating with the outside world, meaning authorities had no assessment as to the extent of the damage there. As Maduro’s authorities had not restored electricity, locals did not have access to any outside communication, though the newspaper noted that these utilities regularly failed in those communities normally. The roads to these communities, El Nacional reported, had either flooded entirely or were so cluttered with trees and various debris that it was impossible for rescuers to take them. The newspaper described the three areas as “frequently affected in times of heavy rains.”
Maduro, who ceased being the legal president of Venezuela in January 2019 but maintains control of the armed forces and, thus, the country, ordered soldiers into Aragua for search and rescue operations on Wednesday.
“I have ordered the CEOFANB [Operational Strategic Commander of the Armed Forces of Venezuela], Civil Defense … to deploy immediately to attend the people in Aragua state regarding the overflow of the Limón River,” Maduro announced on Twitter. “All teams are active and alert so that we can support our brothers and sisters.”
Ordené al CEOFANB, Defensa Civil y Barrio Nuevo, Barrio Tricolor, desplegarse de manera inmediata para atender al pueblo en el estado Aragua, ante el desbordamiento del Rio “El Limón”. Activos y alertas todos los equipos para que apoyemos a nuestros hermanos y hermanas. pic.twitter.com/Q3E0jH8Poa
— Nicolás Maduro (@NicolasMaduro) September 10, 2020
The legal president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, took a moment from his scheduled event to honor “health heroes” fighting the Chinese coronavirus to seek international aid for those affected.
“We have notified the mission from the United Nations and we have also asked for Civil Protection for the maximum collaboration at this moment,” Guaidó announced, decrying Maduro’s regime for not having the competence to properly respond to natural disasters.
Failing infrastructure and a lack of competent government institutions under socialism have plagued Venezuela since dictator Hugo Chávez took power in 1999. Flooding similarly destroyed a significant part of another Venezuelan community last week: Cabimas, a city near Maracaibo Lake on the other side of the country, in Zulia state. The flooding there caused so much damage that it appeared to rupture a pipe carrying crude oil, resulting in streets flooded with the toxic fossil fuel.
“Every time it rains what we feel is fear; we are desperate,” a local 90-year-old woman in Cabimas told El Pitazo following the flooding. “The authorities say nothing, even though children and the elderly live here.”