Kelantan's 'mini tsunami'

Kelantan's 'mini tsunami'
Security guard Wan Rozelan Wan Hussein (above) sitting on the ruins of his house in a village just outside Kuala Krai.

Contractor Mohd Sanusi Mohd Ali, 30, was dreaming of peace and quiet as he got ready to return and spend the last week of December in Manek Urai Lama, his small hometown in Kuala Krai.

Retreating from the noise and bustle of Kuala Lumpur, he was going to seek quietude at the family home he and his eight siblings had refurbished for more than RM30,000 (S$11,300).

The four-bedroom bungalow, home to his mother and sister, was set against the serene Lebir River.

But on the morning of Christmas Eve, after six days of continuous rain, the swollen river burst its banks.

"By 7am, the fields were flooded but the water kept rising," Mr Sanusi recalled. "It's flooded before, but nothing like what I saw this time."

Soon, the muddy water was flowing into his house, which was built on concrete beams above ground. By mid-morning, the water in his home was knee-deep.

As it kept rising, Mr Sanusi bundled his two-year-old son, pregnant wife, mother and sister into his car and sped to higher ground. At a bridge spanning the Lebir River, he looked back.

His village was partly submerged and by midnight, it was completely underwater except for the green, dome-shaped crown of the village mosque's minaret.

There was no time to take anything. Tugging at his shirt and trousers, Mr Sanusi said: "I only have these. Birth certificates, marriage certificates, our ICs, all gone."

He added: "My priority was my family."

His family was among 24,000 people in Kuala Krai, one of the worst-hit areas in Kelantan, who had to be evacuated in Malaysia's worst flood in decades.

At its peak, almost 250,000 people across Peninsular Malaysia had to be moved to relief centres, where they stayed for almost a week as they waited for the waters to subside. Many still remain in these centres.

Air-conditioning technician Eddy Zahari (left), 28, and his brother Emy Zahari, 20, cleaning mud off their motorcycles in Manek Urai Lama. The floods brought to the surface the limitations of the country's emergency services in managing a major crisis, but non-governmental organisations have been swift in giving aid and small businesses have pitched in.

When The Sunday Times visited Manek Urai Lama on New Year's Day, the Lebir River was calm again. Many residents, who had spent the past few days at flood relief centres, walked in stunned silence as they made their way between overturned cars and uprooted trees to their homes.

At least one-third of the 300 or so homes, including Mr Sanusi's, had been swept away. His house was dumped about 20m away atop the compound's perimeter wall, and the only sign of where it once stood were a couple of concrete beams.

"I feel very sad looking at my house; I just want to walk away," he said, shaking his head in despair. "I cannot bring my mother here. She is old and I don't think she can take it seeing her home gone."

Flood victims cleaning their house and drying their kitchen items at Kusial Baru in Kelantan

But even those with homes still standing were not much better off. The thick, wet mud was everywhere. Objects of comfort and entertainment, such as mattresses and televisions, had become heavy, formless brown lumps.

Those whose houses are still standing, such as Mr Faiz Hanafi Mohamad (above), are spending their days shovelling thick mud out of their homes.

Across from Mr Sanusi's compound, undergraduate Faiz Hanafi Mohamad, 23, and his father, 49-year-old driver Mohamad Yusuf, were armed with cangkuls and scooping mud from their living room floor into a wheelbarrow.

It was a slow trudge as they stood knee-deep in the thick, slippery mud.

Though it was noon, there was little light in all the homes as the day was cloudy and electricity had been turned off by the authorities to prevent electrocution during the floods.

Clean water too was non-existent as the water supply was disrupted and wells were polluted.

"We've been cleaning for three days, but some things like the sofa are too heavy to bring out to throw," said Mr Faiz, who is studying civil engineering. "But eventually the house will be clean, maybe in one or two weeks' time."

The ordeal of the villagers in Manek Urai Lama typifies the plight of many of the flood-stricken towns and rural hamlets in the peninsula's east coast, which bore the brunt of the floods of unprecedented scale.

The floods have claimed 21 lives, with at least 10 other people reported missing.

But amid the distress and destruction grew a strong spirit of gotong-royong as the villagers banded together to help one another.

At a mosque-turned-relief centre in the town of Tanah Merah, men and boys slept on the roof and stairwells, leaving the second floor for women and children, after flood waters breached the ground floor last Monday, said primary school teacher Zamir Zakaria, 47.

When the waters receded, they organised themselves to scrub the ground floor clean, restoring it to liveable conditions.

Security guard Wan Rozelan Wan Hussein (above) sitting on the ruins of his house in a village just outside Kuala Krai.

Security guard Wan Rozelan Wan Hussein, 53, who lives in a kampung just outside Kuala Krai, is confident his fellow residents will overcome the disaster, as their countrymen did in 2004 when the Indian Ocean tsunami caused havoc in some villages in Penang and Kedah.

"If we managed to get through that tsunami, we'll get through this tsunami kecil," he said, adding that he was thankful his extended family, including his 14 grandchildren, was safe.

They currently live in a makeshift home he made by placing a tarpaulin over what remained of his garage, as his five-bedroom home had been destroyed.

His never-say-die attitude was reflected many times over in the other villages we visited.

Wooden planks that were once part of stilt houses were laid on the ground to form a safe footpath across the treacherous mud. A number of residents also nailed wooden planks together to create makeshift racks to dry their clothes on, and make floor squeegees to push water out of their homes.

The floods, however, brought to the surface the limitations of the country's emergency services in managing a major crisis, and some villagers were critical of both the state and federal governments.

"Where was the government immediately following the flooding, when they were most needed?" asked Mr Foo Chik Thai, 67, proprietor of repair shop Jackson Auto Electric in Kuala Krai.

Officials say they were initially overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, and Malaysia's National Security Council said "exceptionally high" water levels had cut off its rescuers from relief centres in the north-eastern part of the country, some of which were themselves flooded.

Many village headmen and district officers whom it relied on for information could not give it in time because they were also victims, the council added.

But local non-governmental organisations have been swift in giving aid and small businesses have pitched in.

Mr Gan Siew Choy, co-owner of heavy equipment shop Eng Chong in Kuala Krai, hired lorries to ferry some 50 power generators from Kuala Lumpur to bring power to homes in the town.

Malaysian power company Tenaga Nasional had turned off nearly 2,000 substations in Kelantan in the initial days of the flood to prevent short circuits and electrocutions, cutting power to nearly 170,000 people in Kelantan.

As the sunny weather blotted out the weatherman's warning that another wave of flooding was possible, victims like Mr Sanusi are focused on getting their families back on their feet, one step at a time.

"My first priority is to move my mother and family to my home in Rawang (in Selangor)," he said. "After that, I'll think about rebuilding our home in Manek Urai Lama."

yanliang@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Jan 4, 2015.
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