Torrential Rains in Venezuela Leave 21 Dead, Thousands Homeless

Flooding and landslides unleashed by torrential rains have killed at least 21 people in Venezuela, forced thousands from their homes and idled an oil refinery.

The death toll rose on Tuesday as authorities confirmed eight additional deaths in Caracas and nearby states. Vice President Elias Jaua said there had been 21 deaths nationwide since Thursday and about 5,600 people fled their homes.

Gov. Henrique Capriles decreed a "state of alarm" in Miranda state, which includes parts of the capital, aiming to speed aid to flood victims. Capriles, speaking to Venezuelan television station Globovision, called on President Hugo Chavez to declare an emergency in the state.

Chavez has already declared an emergency in the western state of Falcon, which has been particularly hard hit, and the military has been dispatched to aid victims.

Officials said the storms caused a power outage Monday that stopped operations at the Cardon oil refinery in Falcon, and similar problems shut down some units at the adjacent Amuay refinery. Venezuela's state oil company said it had adequate supplies on hand and the problems would not affect fuel shipments.

The government says the heavy rains during November, which have continued past the usual end of the wet season, have caused troubles for more than 50,000 people nationwide.

Those killed in coastal Vargas state near Caracas included the head of a local municipal council, Miguel Zavala, and a police inspector, who were swept away by a swollen river during the night, Gov. Jorge Garcia Carneiro told state television.

Flooding rivers and mudslides blocked the coastal highway in Vargas, and crews were working to reopen the road, Garcia Carneiro said.

Thousands were killed in the same area in December 1999 when floods and mudslides thundered down from the mountains in Vargas.

In Caracas, many of those killed in recent days have been children and adolescents, firefighter Delio Martinez told Globovision. An elderly woman also died in a landslide that buried her shantytown home Monday, Martinez said.

In some areas where the deluges destroyed homes, people gathered their belongings and left.

"The only thing I remember was a loud clamor and the people screaming," said 60-year-old Ena Romero, recalling the moment when part of a hillside collapsed in her neighborhood and took other homes with it.

She was among about 1,500 people who officials said were staying in disaster shelters set up by the government.

The storms also knocked down tree branches and left some streets underwater. In the coastal town of Higuerote, east of Caracas, a group of men played dominoes on a table they set up in the middle of a flooded street.(AP)