It was raining — hard. A creek that flows down a nearby mountain swelled, spilling over into the larger river it feeds below. A fast-moving landslide formed, sweeping away car-sized boulders and swallowing up houses in northern Maracay.
“I was drenched in water and getting stuck in the mud,” Betancourt said. “But, meanwhile, the landslide was gushing down the street I would’ve normally taken home. My car would’ve definitely been swept.”
It was Venezuela’s second catastrophic landslide in a little over a week. Another devastated the nearby town of Las Tejerías on Oct. 8, killing 54. Monday’s landslide killed at least three people after hitting the Palmarito, El Castaño and Corozal areas — a sector of the city along the slope of a mountain in the Henri Pittier National Park.
Rain isn’t unusual in Maracay — especially during Venezuela’s wettest season, from May to November. But the loud thunder, bright flashes of lightning and monstrous roaring hinted at the deadly turn the torrential downpour would bring on Monday afternoon.
Betancourt’s wife, Francia, was inside the couple’s home when it rattled for about three minutes around 1:30 p.m. At first, she thought it could be an earthquake. Then she saw trees falling like dominoes and brown water gushing down the neighborhood’s slope. There was a clamor that sounded as if “a giant monster was crawling underneath the earth,” she said.
Looking at that muddy mass approaching her home, Francia worried about Arturo. The two were supposed to meet for lunch in a few minutes. She wondered whether he would be swept away. Fortunately, she said, “it just wasn’t his time to leave us.”
After dragging himself through knee-deep sludge, Arturo made it back some three hours later, on a walk that would’ve normally taken about 30 minutes.
The Betancourts’ street was one of about two that hadn’t been washed away in their upper-middle-class neighborhood of about 250 families. Yet the signs of destruction were everywhere, they said: One young neighbor died after the river carried her away, while another was stuck in her home. Entire houses had disappeared, and the aqueduct servicing the area was gone.
That night, families reeled from the “unimaginable loss,” Francia said. Their power, cellphone and water services are also down and could take months to fix — all while the country is already facing an energy crisis.
“That scare from seeing the landslide move in is terrible. The loss of life is terrible,” Francia said. “But the aftermath is just as terrifying. I mean, this is a place where we have brief power outages at least three times each week, and we have to come together as neighbors to fix any problems. I’m trying to be an optimist, but I don’t see this getting better any time soon.”
The aftermaths of other natural disasters in Venezuela don’t inspire much hope either, the couple added. Communities in the nearby coastal state of Vargas are still rebuilding 23 years after mudslides killed at least 10,000 people in 1999 — a moment in history dubbed the “Vargas tragedy.” Arturo said he fears crumbling infrastructure and the government’s history of refusing humanitarian aid could also prolong the crisis.
The office of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post. On Monday night, Maduro, along with Vice President Delcy Rodríguez and other officials, surveyed the area amid “the most difficult year in terms of rain for the whole country,” the president told reporters, blaming climate change for the torrential rainfall in Venezuela this year.
Maduro said 1,000 members of the armed forces would be mobilized to the area to assist with rescue operations and clearing debris. “We have to go in with everything and support [the city] because there are zones that are buried [in mud and debris], and we have to go in early,” he said.
Juan Guaidó, who is recognized as Venezuela’s president by the United States and a slew of other nations, said on Twitter that “rain shouldn’t mean anguish for our people, as it is in Maracay and in tragedies like Las Tejerías. Natural disasters are inevitable, but we can prepare and learn from them.”
In Maracay, the Betancourts decided to leave their home and drive east to Caracas, where Francia’s mother lives. On Tuesday morning, each of them carried a small backpack with two changes of clothes and important documents as they walked down a street pancaked in mud, trees, boulders and pieces of concrete.
The elderly man who lives in front of them was being rescued by civil defense workers, who carried him atop a dining room chair. One of them handed Francia a steel tube as makeshift tool to measure the mud’s depth.
“The scene was surreal, like something out of an apocalyptic movie or Indiana Jones,” she said, sitting beside Arturo inside a home in Venezuela’s capital, where they’re hoping to stay for at least a month.
Still, Arturo said, “we’re some of the lucky ones.”
“We’re safe, and our house was spared. But some people lost everything. I fear for the many, many others who are going through a tremendously difficult situation that’s only just beginning.”
“They have to pick up the pieces of their lives that were swept away by water and mud,” he added.