Vargas tragedy

Vargas tragedy
Vargas tragedy
A part of Vargas state after the 1999 mudslides
Date December 14, 1999 (1999-12-14) December 16, 1999 (1999-12-16)
Location Vargas State, Venezuela
tens of thousands
Venezuela Vargas State Location.svg Location of Vargas in Venezuela

The 1999 Vargas tragedy was a disaster that struck the Vargas State of Venezuela in December 1999, when the torrential rains and the flash floods and debris flows that followed on 14–16 December killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed thousands of homes, and led to the complete collapse of the state's infrastructure. According to relief workers, the neighborhood of Los Corales was buried under three meters (9.8 feet) of mud[citation needed] and a high percentage of homes were simply swept away to the ocean. Whole towns like Cerro Grande and Carmen de Uria completely disappeared. As much as 10% of the population of Vargas perished during this event.



A section of Los Corales, one of the neighborhoods in the Vargas state which suffered the heaviest destruction

The coastal area of Vargas has long been subject to mudslides and flooding: geologically similar catastrophes occurred with regularity. The most recent major flood was in 1951, however that event did not cause as much damage.[1] The unusually strong storm in December 1999 dumped 911 millimetres (35.9 in) of rain over just a few days, triggering soil instability and flow of debris.[2] The state had experienced a lot of population growth and development since the previous major disaster in 1951, thus increasing the toll of casualties.[citation needed]

Previous events

On average since the 17th century, at least two large-magnitude debris flow, landslide, or flood events have occurred each century within the modern boundaries of Vargas State. Recorded events occurred in February 1798; August 1912, January 1914; November 1938, May 1944, November 1944, August 1948, and February 1951. The deposits preserved on the alluvial fan deltas here show that these events occurred back through prehistoric times.[1]

In the February 1798 event, flash floods and debris flows severely damaged 219 homes. Spanish soldiers barricaded an upstream-facing entrance to a fort with cannons in order to prevent debris from filling it.[1]

Based on aerial photos and records of measurements, geologists were able to directly compare the 1951 event to the 1999 event. The 1951 event involved less rainfall than the 1999 event, fewer landslides were triggered, and less fresh debris was observed on the fans.[1]

Population density

The alluvial fans that are built as sediments from floods and debris flows exit their channels and meet the oceans provide the only extensive flat surfaces along the mountainous coastline of North-central Venezuela. As such, many of them have been extensively developed and urbanized. This high population density increases the risk to life and property from flash flood and debris flow events.

As of 1999, several hundred thousand people lived in this narrow coastal strip in Vargas state. Many of these people lived atop alluvial fans formed by debris flows sourced out of the 2,000-meter peaks to their south.[3]


Isohyet (contour of equal precipitation) map of the December 14–16, 1999 storm draped over a shaded relief map of north-central Venezuela

December 1999 was unusually wet along the north-central Venezuelan coast. The first, and less powerful, storm that December occurred on the 2nd and 3rd, and dropped 200 mm of rain on the coast.[3]

In a 52-hour span during December 14, 15, and 16, 1999, 91.1 centimeters of rain (approximately one year's total rainfall for the region) was measured on the north-central coast of Venezuela at Simón Bolívar International Airport in Maiquetia, Venezuela. These heavy rains included 7.2 centimeters of accumulation in just one hour, between 6 and 7 AM on the 16th; precipitation on both the 15th and 16th exceeded the 1000-year probability rainfall event. Even so, the coast received much less rain than some regions upstream.[1]

This sudden and intense storm was especially unusual because it occurred in December, while the typical rainy season in coastal Venezuela lasts from May to October. These out-of-season rains formed when a cold front interacted with a moist southwesterly flow in the Pacific Ocean. This interaction produced moderate to heavy rainfall starting in the first week of December and culminating in the December 14–16 event that caused the deadly floods and debris flows.[1]

The heaviest rains were centered around the mid-upper part of the San Julián basin, which feeds water and sediment onto the Caraballeda fan. Heavy rains persisted within 8 kilometers of the coast, and subsided on the Caracas side of the Cerro El Ávila. Rainfall rates also decreased westward toward Maiquetia.[1]



The bedrock in the region surrounding Caracas is mainly metamorphic. From the coast and extending approximately 1 kilometer inland, deeply-foliated schist of the Mesozoic Tacagua Formation is exposed. Soils forming on them are fine-grained (clayey), thin (0.5–3.0 meters), and often colluvial. Although the A horizon of the soil is often less than 30 centimeters thick, the bedrock is often weathered down to greater than two meters. Further inland, gneisses of the Paleozoic San Julián Formation and Precambrian Peña de Mora Formation extend to the crest of the Sierra de Avila. These units have thin soils over less-weathered bedrock; this is believed to be because of rapid erosion due to the steep slopes in this area.[1]

Because foliation planes are planes of weakness, these fabrics within the rocks strongly influence landslide and debris flow hazards.[1] Where the foliation planes are dipping towards a free surface, failure is likely to occur along these planes.[1]

Alluvial fan sedimentology and past floods

The alluvial fans that spread out into the sea from valley mouths were built by previous flood and debris flow events.[1] The modern channel systems of these alluvial fan deltas are incised into previously-deposited debris flow and flood material.[1][3] Scientists at the US Geological Survey measured these old deposits. They found that they are thicker than the December 1999 ones and contain larger boulders. This means that previous debris flows were even larger than those in December 1999 and reached higher velocities.[1]

On the Caraballeda fan, the extent of the 1951 event paled in comparison to the 1999 event. Much of the deposits that constitute the Caraballeda fan are of a thickness similar to those produced in the 1999 event and contain boulders of a size similar to those observed in 1999.[1]

The USGS geologists found paleosols with organic material above and below a 10-meter thick layer of debris flow deposits. The bottom paleosol was radiocarbon dated to 4267 ±38 years Before Present (BP), and the top one was dated to 3720±50 years BP. This means that, at least in this area, the bed aggraded 10 meters in 550 years, for an average rate of about 1.8 cm per year (though the aggradation occurs only during short-lived events). The scientists were not able to tell whether the deposits were from a single debris flow or multiple events.[1]

Oversteepend hillslopes failed during the rainstorm, sending landslides of soil into the channels (such as the braided river at bottom) and supplying sediment to flash floods and debris flows. The transmission tower on the right side of the image is 30 meters tall.

Surficial geology and geomorphology

Alluvial fan deltas in this region have shallow slopes. They are poorly channelized because sediment is being added to them from upstream (infilling the channels) at a rate equal to or greater than the rate at which it can be removed.[1]

Hillslopes are steepened past the angle of repose for noncohesive materials. This oversteepening is more than could be provided for by the frictional resistance of the sandy soils. Internal soil cohesion, negative pore pressure ("soil suction"), soil structure, and/or tree root reinforcement may be responsible for this.[1]


Terraces containing previous debris flow deposits are now perched 10–20 meters above the modern stream channels. Erosion from the 1999 flood exposed bedrock benches 50 centimeters to 2 meters above the present channel. These abandoned high surfaces suggest recent and continuing tectonic uplift of the Venezuelan coast and corresponding river channel incision. In spite of the fact that most onshore faults active in this region during the Quaternary are mapped as right-lateral strike-slip, it is possible that there is a vertical component of offset in offshore faults.[1]

A 2.9 meter thick debris flow deposit from December 1999 is exposed by river incision during late-stage floods.

The event

Heavy rains fell in December 1999 along the north-central coast of Venezuela, culminating in a period of extreme intensity from the 14th to the 16th of December. Starting around 8 PM local time (AST) on December 15, runoff entered channels and rushed towards the sea, picking up and depositing sediments on its way. Generally after this first wave of flooding, from the coast to just past the crest of the Sierra de Avila, these rains triggered thousands[3] of shallow landslides that stripped soil and rock off of the landscape and sent them slipping down the mountainside. Additional water liquefied these landslides into debris flows, which are granular flows in which water mixes with high concentrations of rock and mud. The first eyewitness accounts of debris flows were from 8:30 PM on the 15th, and the final debris flows were reported between 8 and 9 AM on December 16. Many catchments released multiple debris flows, some of which carried large boulders and tree trunks onto the alluvial fan deltas. Starting between 7 and 9 AM on the 16th and continuing until late that afternoon, a new wave of floods occurred. These floodwaters were less concentrated in sediment and were therefore able to entrain new material and incise new channels into the flood and debris flow deposits from the previous days.[1]

The debris flows moved rapidly, and many of them were highly destructive. Based on the maximum sizes of boulders measured in the flood deposits and the amount by which the flow on the outside of a bend was higher than that on the inside, geologists estimate the flow velocities to range from 3.3 to 14.5 meters per second. These rapid, bouldery flows resulted in much of the observed destruction.[1]

In addition to these debris flows, flash floods carrying extremely high sediment loads were very dangerous. Together the flash floods and debris flows destroyed hundreds of houses, bridges, and other structures. They incised new channels to depths of several meters into every alluvial fan delta on the Vargas state coastline, and they blanketed these fans with sediment.[3]

Damage from the debris flow on the Caraballeda fan. The main channel (at left) avulsed to a new course that led it through the houses to the right. These avulsion deposits are up to 6 meters thick and total about 1.8 million cubic meters of boulders and other material.

The Caraballeda fan

Of the many communities that were affected by the disaster, the Caraballeda fan was one of the most hard-hit. The intensity of the disaster here is a combination of two factors. First, the Caraballeda fan was heavily urbanized, with many high-rise buildings and multistory houses. Second, it lies at the mouth of the Quebrada San Julián (Saint Julian Ravine), and this watershed produced very large boulders and a massive inundated area. Approximately 1/3 of the Caraballeda fan was inundated by debris flows, and the entire fan is built of past debris flow deposits.[1]

The floods and debris flows of 1999 did not follow the eastern channel on Caraballeda. This channel, formed during the 1951 floods, had been lined with concrete and designed to safely transport the flows into to the sea. Instead, the debris flows overwhelmed the channel and the flows overtopped the banks wherever the channel changed direction. Once free of the culvert, the channel rapidly avulsed across the fan and spread debris throughout the community. These overbank flows demolished 2-story houses and destroyed the first two stories of apartment buildings. Farther down the fan, the debris flows routed themselves down streets. As the flows progressed, they left thinner and thinner deposits, though they often still exceeded 1 meter (3 feet) in thickness. After several avulsions, the channel roughly followed the pre-1951 flood path.[1]

USGS geologists estimate the deposit volume to be at least 1.8 million cubic meters (from comparing topographic scans) or 1.9 million cubic meters (from field measurements). This is among the largest rainfall-induced debris flow deposits in recorded history, though volcanic-induced debris flows can be ten times as large. Subaqueous deposition extended the shoreline an additional 40–60 meters into the sea. The deposit thicknesses range from 4–5 meters (maximum of 5.3 meters) near the center of the fan to around 0.5 meters near the pre-flood shoreline. Maximum boulder sizes decreased towards the shoreline due to the decreasing slope of the fan.[1]


Partially collapsed building; the collapsed area was undercut when debris flows destroyed the bottom floor

Extensive damage occurred to towns, cities, and infrastructure along the path of the debris flows. The cost of this damage was estimated at US$1.79 billion. Over 8000 residences and 700 apartment buildings were destroyed in Vargas. Roads and utilities (electricity, water, sewage, and telephone) were severely disrupted.[1]


The disaster was of such magnitude that the president of the Red Cross initially presumed more than 50,000 dead. The first priority was to evacuate survivors; more than 100,000 people were ultimately evacuated.[2] After the disaster, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez advocated for other Venezuelans to open up their homes, and "adopt a family". The former First Lady of Venezuela arranged the temporary sheltering of children that were feared orphaned in La Casona, the Presidential residence in Caracas.[4] Chavez refused the help of United States soldiers in handling the emergency situation, even though the arrangements had been made and U.S. Navy ships had been already dispatched with men, heavy machines, and aid supplies. Those vessels returned in mid-voyage to their home ports after Chavez rejected their help.[5]

Other people offered help, including Major League Baseball shortstop Omar Vizquel, a native Venezuelan, who helped raise over $500,000 in relief funds.[citation needed]

After the initial emergency response, focus shifted to analyzing the causes of the disaster, and working to create a sustainable infrastructure for dealing with future torrential rains.[citation needed]

Lasting effects

The disaster caused estimated damages of USD $1.79 to $3.5 billion.[1][2] More than 8,000 homes were destroyed, displacing up to 75,000 people.[2] The mudslides significantly altered more than 60 kilometres (37 mi) of the coastline in Vargas. Over 70% of the population of the state of Vargas was affected by the disaster. Public services, like water, electricity, phone lines, and land transportation (roads and bridges) completely disappeared in some places. There were no supplies of food and water for months, so most of the population had to be evacuated. Looting and sacking sprouted up everywhere, forcing the military to implement martial law for more than one year.[citation needed]

The death toll was considered to be between 10,000[6] and 30,000[1]—the exact number of casualties is difficult to estimate as there were no reliable census data, especially about shanty towns and small communities that were completely wiped out; moreover, only some 1,000 bodies were recovered, with the rest swept to sea by the mud or buried in the landslides.[1]

By 2006, the state was back to its pre-disaster population level, and infrastructure projects were slowly being carried out to reconstruct the damage caused by the widespread disasters.[6] Nine years after the event, thousands remained homeless.[citation needed] Real estate loss of worth in zones untouched by the floods was as high as 70%, due to the destruction of infrastructure.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa Wieczorek GF, Larsen MC, Eaton LS, Morgan BA, Blair JL (2 December 2002). "Debris-flow and flooding hazards associated with the December 1999 storm in coastal Venezuela and strategies for mitigation". U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved 31 March 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c d (Spanish) Genatios Carlos, Lafuente Marienela (November 2003). "Lluvias torrenciales en Vargas, Venezuela, en diciembre de 1999. Protección ambiental y recuperación urbana". Instituto de Materiales y Modelos Estructurales Universidad Central de Venezuela 41 (2–3): 49–62. Retrieved 31 March 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Larsen, M.C.; Wieczorek, G.F., Eaton, L.S., Morgan, B.A., Torres-Silva, H. (2001). Natural Hazards on Alluvial Fans: The Venezuela Debris Flow and Flash Flood Disaster. USGS Fact Sheet. FS 103 01. 
  4. ^ (Spanish) "Los niños venezolanos ya habían escrito su 'carta'". Terra México. 20 December 1999. Archived from the original on 4 September 2009. Retrieved 1 September 2009. 
  5. ^ (Spanish) Olavarría, Jorge (17 January 2000). "Los barcos que no llegaron". Venezuela Analitica. Retrieved 31 March 2010. 
  6. ^ a b Rivero, Yensi (2007). "Venezuela's Vargas Disaster Hard to Forget". Tierramérica. Retrieved 31 March 2010. 


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