Learning How to Survive “Vargas Tragedy”
If you are a Floridian, you have learned at the school or by your own experience what to do in case of a hurricane wants to visit you: buy water, buy cans of food, protect the house, get gas as crazy, go to a shelter, or evacuate in case of a big catastrophe. In my case, I grew up in a seismic zone. I learned what to do in case of an earthquake: protect ourselves looking for a safe place, evacuate the building and help others as much as we can.
But nobody taught us how to survive to “Vargas Tragedy” three-day-raining made flash floods and debris flows killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed thousands of homes, and led to the complete collapse of the state's infrastructure.
The day I turned 18 years old was unforgivable. I started my day with the sound of my new alarm, a “meow, meow” from a Garfield clock a friend gave me the day before for Secret Santa; it was the only time that cat sounded it.
But, let me talk about Vargas state or how we call it: La Guaira. I had a beautiful teenage living in there. La Guaira is a coast city outside of Caracas. Actually, it was one of the first port the Spanish conquer built in Venezuela. La Guaira is a place full of beaches and empty apartments that Caraqueños go only for the weekends or holidays. Living there, I had the best of living in the capital, and the best of living in a holiday paradise. It was not easy; I had to take a bus every day, and my road to the school made it at least an hour and a half.
The plan for my birthday was to have a small party at my house. My family is not the kind of people who make parties, but it was a special event. My mom bought hot dogs, sodas, and a cake. My friends from Caracas told me they were not going because that day, we had national elections to choose the new Constitution.
In Venezuela, election time is synonyms of a troubled time. There is always the risk of something dangerous that can happen, such as, people protesting and the military kill them, or at least they hurt them, or the military does not like the results, and we can have a coup. The truth is never something that happened in elections time, but we have that fear.
In the meantime, my grandpa called to say he will stay in Caracas because it was raining a lot, and my best friend Vanessa had the same idea. However, Erick, another friend, called her saying, “It is nothing, come over.” Her father drove her to my house; we are talking about an hour away. Her dad was so mad of us that I remember his face; his face was red like a tomato, and I know he will always regret to listen to us.
At the end of my birthday party, at my house, we were: my mom, my brother, my grandmother, Vanessa, Tony, and Erick. About at 8:00 pm, we moved to Vanessa’s apartment because we wanted to drink more alcohol and have load music. Vanessa, Erick, and Tony lived in another building in the same street. I am not going to lie; it was not a fun party. We almost saw each other every day and drink beer every weekend. We finished playing Rummy Q.
At some point in the night, the power went down. It was massive; all-around was in great darkness. We choose to sleep in Erick’s house with him and his mother. We were not scared about the dark; we were scared of being to teenagers alone in an apartment in an almost empty building in a town where criminals lived close.
The new day came so fast. I was officially an adult, but I woke up in Erick’s living room. It was unexpected. We realized the rain had not stopped. It was early enough to watch the news; we could see the weather girl usually serious, saying it was to rain at least another 48 hours.
We turned the radio to listen to the local news. A bunch of people called saying the situation was worse than we thought. Floods, missing people, and blocked ways until the host of the morning radio program chose to play Titanic’s song. The power went out for last time, and forever.
I remember calling my house. While my mother was saying they were beautiful, I could watch a waterfall of brown water from the mountain to the ocean, in the same place where three days ago it was a street.
I am sure you have heard in Latin America people do not have memory. The main point of this phrase is we usually choose the wrong leader. We forget that the leader we love made many bad decisions, hurt us, and stole money; now you can understand how Fujimori, Alan Garcia, Chavez, and The Kirchners got reelected many times. We never learn.
I lived the consequences of our bad memory. Disasters like “Vargas Tragedy” happened many times centuries ago, but nobody remembered. Nobody taught us about it at the school, or nobody explained to us how to survive, or how to build houses and offices in the right places of the states, or how to save some food. Actually, if we were informed, we could have evacuated the state and avoid several deaths. The point this tragedy could be a total surprise even though it is a recurrent phenomenon.
After listening to Titanic’s song and having no power, we only could contemplate the raining. I remember we were in Erick’s apartment, imagine what was happening. I tried to not think about my other friends who lived in different places in the state. “Are they alive?” “Are they safe?” “Will we survive?” It was better to avoid this kind of thought.
Today, I have tried to remember Erick’s apartment; I can’t. It had two bedrooms, one bathroom, a small kitchen, a balcony, but I don’t know the color of the sofa, the size of the dinner table, the brand of the TV, or the fabric of the curtains.
However, I do remember our faces. We were bored and scared, terrified. We tried to see our eyes, but we dodge our gazes. We were young enough to be moving around. We went down-stairs thirteen floors to talk with neighbors in the lobby; then, we went up-stair seven levels to check Vanessa’s apartment; we went down-stairs five levels to speak with Tony, Leo, and Sandra’s apartments. All of them lived on the second floor. Finally, we went up-stairs to the 13th floor to check Erick’s mom.
Erick was a close friend; he was tall, grey eyes; with only 19 years old, he already had much gray hair and smoked a box of cigarettes per day. Those days, Erick was obsessed with his new cell phone. I have to admit that the cell phone was super helpful; we could have made some crucial calls after the raining stopped.
At that time, when smartphones were not in our lives, our mobiles had batteries which lasted for hours. We chose to charge Erick’s phone in his car, a red Fiat Palio. I loved that car; we went to many parties, beach trips, and the school in that car.
That day, the day after I turned 18 years old, I discovered what it is fear. Erick and Vanesa were sat in the front part. Tony and I were sat in the back. Tony was unusually quiet. Vanessa and Erick were chatting when Tony told me: “I am scared. I think all of us can die tonight. After all, this raining the water is concentrated in some point of the mountain, and it can fall like a huge wave to raze all out the town.” He was studying to become a Civil Engineer, so he knew this kind of staff.
That night, after taking a sleeping pill, I pray to God: “Please, if we must die, I ask you that my mom, my brother and me die together; if we must survive, we all must be still alive. Please, do not make to live the other deaths.” Even at that time, I knew that it was something worse than die: watch your loved one die.
When you research “Vargas Tragedy,” you read about the phenomenon that happened in 52 hours during 14, 15 and 16 December, 91.1 centimeters (35.9 in) of precipitation (approximately one year's average total rainfall for the region). However, the raining started two weeks ago.
Raining was part of our lives, and we get used to living with it. We did not expect that something so normal and natural would ruin our lives.
The drops made the mountains to fall into the towns with big rocks and mud. It was not a usual flood where the water hurts; it was more and stronger. It was a mass that devastated everything.
I woke up.
I woke up again in Erick’s living room.
I was happy enough because I could see the new day, and the fresh morning gave us good news: the raining stopped. The first uncertainty ended. The sun was in the sky like nothing happened like we could go to the beach like we could be happy again like everyone was alive.
Erick’s first idea was to walk around. I declined the invitation. I did not want to see the reality; I only wanted to leave the place where I had the best years of my life.
At least, I was strong enough to go to the top of Vanessa building to watch around. It was a disaster. The mud and the rocks ate all the coast. Cars, houses, furniture, buses, trees, and corpses were everywhere. It was a mess. It was like an abstract painting or Tokyo after Godzilla’s visit. It was the representation of the end of the world.
That day, I had other good news. My mom, my brother, and my grandmother moved to Vanessa’s apartment. I was with my family. We were together one more time. Their experience was worse than mine. Our building shook; they went to another building for no reason; they could have moved to us before, but my mom chose to be solidary with our neighbors, and no abandoning them.
Erick’s phone was working perfectly. We could communicate with many people. Vanesa’s family was worried but happy to know she was fine with us. We knew about some of our friends and silent about others.
The night came. It was so silent, very silent.
The second part of “Vargas Tragedy” was what happened after raining. It was in this kind of situation when human nature came out. Some men entered houses and buildings to steal, to loot, rape, and torture. Yes, many women survived the natural disaster, but they did not survive to the real danger.
There are many stories about hours and hours of violence and raping. Women were screaming and crying where nobody could hear.
I woke up in the middle of the night because our neighbors, the people who lived in the houses in the back of Vanessa’s building, made enough noise to alert us about some strangers who entered the building. It was about 2:00 am; my mother, my 12-year-old brother, my sick grandmother, Vanessa and I were the only ones on the seventh floor.
It meant if a couple of guys tried to attack us, they could have done anything they wanted. We were alone and weak. I remember myself getting a knife and going to bed shaking until my eyes finally closed.
That morning, all who were in the building decided to leave. Another night there meant to be at risk. We survived the raining, but we will not escape the invaders.