Venezuela Floods Force 75,000 To Shelters

Devastating floods and mudslides have forced 75,000 Venezuelans to take refuge at hundreds of shelters.

The onslaught of dangerous conditions brought on by torrential rains prompted authorities to evacuate hundreds more residents from high-risk regions Sunday. The situation stoked fears that voters would abstain from important elections in 11 cities and two states.

Meteorologists forecast more rain in several of the states hit hardest by a weeks-long deluge. Vice President Elías Jaua announced that a dam overflowed in western Zulia state, but he called for calm, saying the incident had not caused any deaths and noting that 300 people living in villages below the dam had been evacuated.

"It's not going to have significant consequences," Jaua said.

The floods and mudslides unleashed by more then two weeks of steady rain throughout much of this South American nation of 28 million have killed at least 34 people and left more than 5,000 Venezuelans homeless.

The government has declared a state of emergency in the capital and three states: Miranda, Vargas and Falcon. Rains also pounded the western states of Zulia, Trujillo, Mérida and Táchira on Saturday. The heavy rains have continued even though the country's wet season usually ends in mid-November.

Marcos Duran, a forecaster at the National Meteorology Institute, told Union Radio that a storm off Venezuela's coast was expected to bring rains Sunday to numerous states, several of which have already been hit hard.

Súmate, a local nongovernmental organization that monitors elections, has expressed concern the rains would keep voters away from balloting for governors in two states and mayors in 11 municipalities, including Maracaibo, the South American country's second-largest city.

"This situation will undoubtedly have negative effects regarding the participation of voters," Súmate said in a statement issued Saturday.

On Margarita Island, more than 200 families were evacuated from a town near the San Juan River, which overflowed its banks, said Wolfgang Diaz, an official with Venezuela's emergency protection agency. Diaz told the Globovisión television channel on Sunday that early-morning rains caused mudslides nearby, clogging dikes and prompting the river's water levels to swell.

National Guard troops and federal police planned to evacuate 360 families from the hillside slum of Nueva Tacagua, located on the outskirts of Caracas, National Guard Cmdr. Luis Mota Domínguez told the state-run ABN news agency.

"We are currently preparing the way to attempt to fly in with Russian helicopters," Mota Domínguez was quoted as saying.

Enrique Mendoza, an opposition politician, said water levels reached almost 5 feet (1.5 meters) in Higuerote, a town in central Miranda state located alongside Venezuela's Caribbean coast, flooding surrounding highways and roads. "There's no way to get into the town," Mendoza said in an e-mail.

Political foes of President Hugo Chávez have charged that his government's response to the floods has been lackluster and that he has failed during his 11-year rule to meet rising demand for low-income housing. Consequently, increasing numbers of poor Venezuelans have been forced to live in ramshackle slums ringing major cities, they say.

"There are no longer any excuses for this unprecedented failure," prominent opposition politician Julio Borges said Sunday.

During a visit to the coastal state of Vargas on Sunday, Chávez announced his government would construct houses near Simón Bolívar International Airport, the country's largest and busiest airport, and within the bounds of El Avila National Park, a mountainous swath of land separating Caracas from the coast. He lashed out at critics, saying wealthy Venezuelans have done little to help ease the effects of the floods.

"You people from the upper class should have already offered your golf courses to set up tents" for those driven from their homes, Chávez said.

Floods have also ravaged neighboring Colombia, where 170 have died during the country's rainy season, according to the International Red Cross. "The rains have increased in different areas of Colombia and they will continue until the first days of the coming year," Jorge Iván Nova, a representative of the Red Cross in Colombia, said recently.

Colombia's government has donated $300,000 to some of the 316,000 families affected by the floods. The U.S. Embassy in Bogota has also pitched in, granting $30,000 to 2,200 families. Colombian officials estimate that more than 10,000 homes have been destroyed during this year's particularly lengthy rainy season.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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