Tales of survival emerge as Venezuela mudslide toll reaches 34

LAS TEJERIAS, Venezuela – Rescue workers using drones and trained dogs searched for survivors Monday after a massive landslide in central Venezuela, as the death toll rose to 34 and residents described harrowing stories of escaping the water and mud.

Jose Medina recalled how the water that poured into his home in the town of Las Tejerías on Saturday evening had reached waist height. He and his family were trapped, he realized.

So the 63-year-old turned his fridge on its side, opened the door and used it as a boat for his grandson. Meanwhile, he and his wife held onto the refrigerator and fixed it on a table so that the strong currents of water would not push them downstream.

Medina described their survival as a “miracle”.

“I’m glad we’re alive, but I’m also sad,” said the retired construction worker, who lost his home and all his belongings.

His distress began when torrential rains caused by Hurricane Julia triggered mudslides and floods that destroyed several hillside neighborhoods in Las Tejerias.

On Monday, Venezuelan officials said at least 34 people died in the floods and 60 were missing in the worst natural disaster to hit the cash-strapped South American country in recent years.

In Las Tejerias, a city of 50,000 people located along Venezuela’s main industrial corridor, crews used heavy machinery to clear debris from neighborhoods whose streets were still blocked with mud. Meanwhile, rescue workers used drones and dogs to find people buried under the debris.

“We’re still hoping to find people who can be rescued,” Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said as she toured one of the neighborhoods hit by the mudslides.

For those who survived, the country’s dire economic situation will make the recovery more challenging.

Medina said his pension — which is pegged to Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage — is worth just $17 a month. Now he will depend on government aid to survive, but added that he considers himself lucky that he did not lose relatives in the mudslide.

Venezuelan authorities said 317 homes in Las Tejerias were wiped out by the mudslide and another 750 homes were damaged.

Residents said they had only minutes to leave their homes late Saturday when the avalanche of mud, rocks and logs swept across several hillsides in the town.

Some people were praying at an evangelical church when the mudslide occurred, while others were at a children’s party, residents said. Several children are among the missing.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Sunday declared three days of mourning for the victims and sent rescue workers to Las Tejerias, which lies along a highway linking Caracas with the industrial city of Valencia. Maduro said 11 states in the country suffered damage from flooding over the weekend.

Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed from Caracas

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