Earth in motion
In the week of December 9th, 1999, the state of Vargas, Venezuela was devastated by more than 50 rapid-flow landslides.
Over the course of three days, the region received more rain than would usually fall on an annual basis. This was the tail end of Hurricane Lenny that had torn through the northeastern Caribbean that November.
The rainfall caused some eight million cubic meters of detritus to slide from the north-facing peaks of the Ávila mountain. Tonnes of mud and debris was deposited on the urban settlements at its feet, burying homes that clustered in the valley and permanently changing the shape of the coastline. These debris flows were followed by flash floods that burst from tributaries and tore through riverbanks.
The landslides and floods destroyed dozens of high-rise seaside apartment blocks, many second homes to wealthy Venezuelans. But their effects were felt most acutely in the the informal settlements that were built on slopes where land was cheap and grounds unstable.
The death toll remains unclear. Official estimates fluctuate between 337 to 30,000. The real figure most likely sits at around 2,000.
The disaster came less than a year into the revolutionary political administration led by Hugo Chávez. In that week of torrential rainfall, the nation voted in a referendum to amend the 1961 constitution, engendering a “participatory democracy” that would replace the “representative democracy” of preceding administrations.
Despite the inclement weather, on December 15th, these proposals were approved by over seventy per cent of Venezuelan voters, gaining a resounding victory in Vargas. In the medium term, the disaster zone become as a testing ground for the flagship social initiatives in health, housing, food, and education that were overseen by the Chávez government.
Some of the homes and buildings that had been destroyed were rebuilt on the same, or nearby, locations. Others that remained partially intact were repurposed or claimed by new occupants.
The state oversaw the construction of numerous road and housing projects in the area, although many have been left unfinished.
The landslides changed the shape of the coastline in its vertical and horizontal dimensions. Santiago Acosta and Efraín Vivas’ photobook, Mañana vendrán las piedras, document some of these changes.
Read more about the Coastline »
Carmen de Uria was a small settlement that was destroyed almost in its entirety. It is now the site of military barracks. The military played an important role in the emergency response to Vargas. Listen to a description of military presence in the area up to a year after the landslide by José Luis Corzo....
Read more about the Carmen de Uria »
The landslides left a lasting mark on the cityscape as a reminder that places are made by people and nature in tandem. Some residents have embraced rocks and debris in their daily lives as garden features. They remind me of installations in botanical gardens that attempt to recreate the fecundity and productivity of wilderness.
Read more about the Rock Gardens and Raised Beds »
On the top right is an example of low-rise state-funded housing that is used for living purposes. This contrasts with the image of the housing on the top left that has not been fully finished to design, although the front doors would suggest that they are occupied. Tired of long waiting times, would-be residents often...
Read more about the State Projects 2 »
Los Corales is one of the most densely-populated settlements along the coast, and so was gravely affected by the landslides. Before 1999, many of the houses in area were used as second homes, holiday lets, or time shares. After the disaster, some of these unoccupied buildings were taken by families whose homes had been destroyed...
Read more about the Los Corales »
The Chávez administration sought to address urgent demands in housing with the rapid construction of low-cost homes that would be allocated to disaster victims. This emergency response to homelessness in Vargas would later form the basis of Misión Vivienda, a programme designed to proffer dignified housing to the families most in need. Not all of...
Read more about the State Projects 1 »
After the disaster, private investors took advantage of cheap land prices and began the construction of towering high-rise buildings in vacant lots along the east bank of Camuri Chico river (pictured right). These contrast with the lower blocks built on the other side that were funded by the state (pictured left).
Read more about the Camuri Chico »
Many Macuto residents left the region in the aftermath of the disaster. Hundreds were rehoused by the state in the interior of the country, while hundreds more found alternative accommodation in Caracas or elsewhere. Their exile was not always permanent. Listen to José Luis Corzo explain why the Vargas survivors decided to return: Some of...
Read more about the Return and Reconstruction »
Macuto is a seaside resort that gained popularity with the young and the wealthy in the 1920s. Although the landslides of 1999 caused significant material damage in the area, there were fewer fatalities in Macuto than in the neighbouring towns of Los Corales or Carmen de Uria. Listen to a survivor, José Luis Corzo, explain...
Read more about the Macuto »
El Castillete was the home and workplace of Armando Reverón, the Venezuelan painter and sculptor who moved from Caracas to Macuto in 1921. There, he designed the small complex, pictured below, that he built with materials sourced locally. It featured a bell tower, a pond, a human-sized dolls’ house, and space for his pet parrot...
Read more about the El Castillete »
Some two years after the disaster, the state constructed a series of flood defences such as these along the coast. They are designed to mitigate the effects of future climate events.
Read more about the Flood Defences »
Further up the mountain, houses were swept away, almost in their entirety, by the floods. Part of their remains are still standing. In some cases, homes have been repaired or constructed using the debris as building materials.
Read more about the La Veguita »