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3
The Vargas Tragedy
Debris Flows

Debris flows are a nightmarish combination of rockslide and flood. If you can imagine a river of greased gravel or melted concrete flowing down a mountain at 3-53 mph (5-85 kph), carrying rocks, boulders and trees along with it, then you have an inkling of the destruction these liquefied landslides can cause [sources: CVO; Jakob].

The rain-spawned tragedy that befell the Vargas coast in Venezuela in December 1999 demonstrates how too much rain can spawn a domino sequence of devastation, a gestalt of destruction greater than the sum of its parts. From Dec. 14-16, a storm poured a year's worth of rain down on the vertical slopes of the Sierra de Avila Mountains north of Caracas, triggering flooding and some of the most massive landslides and debris flows in world history [source: Wieczorek].

The subsequent devastation smashed more than 8,000 homes and 700 apartment buildings. It wrecked roads, telephone and power lines, and water and sewage systems, running up a total bill of around $1.79 billion [source: Wieczorek]. An estimated 30,000 people died, but only about 1,000 bodies were ever recovered; debris flows and floods buried many of the remainder or swept them out to sea [source: USAID].

When it comes to suffering destruction at the hands of severe weather events, some places are topographically and geographically worse off than others, as we'll see next.

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