Picking up the pieces after mini tsunami ravaged homes in Kelantan

Photos by Aziz Hussin, text by Lim Yan Liang In Kuala Krai, Kelantan

Kelantan was among the states that bore the brunt of relentless rain over north-eastern Peninsular Malaysia last week. Surging flood waters swept away houses, flipped cars over and uprooted trees. The Sunday Times team visits devastated villages where residents are picking up the pieces.

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Contractor Mohd Sanusi Mohd Ali (above), 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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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


Fewer people at flood relief centres

Kuala Lumpur - The flood situation in the Malaysian peninsula continued to improve, with the number of people at relief centres in six states - including Kelantan, Terengganu and Johor - falling to just over 61,000 last night from 78,000 on Friday night.

But heavy rains in Sabah caused a river to burst its banks.

The East Coast Expressway route between Kuala Lumpur and Kuantan reopened to traffic yesterday morning after being closed for nearly a week.

But a Pahang police spokesman said only the fast lanes in both directions between the 126.1km mark and the 126.9km mark were open as there was water on the road.

Road access to Temerloh was effectively cut off after a section of the highway was severely flooded on Dec 28.

There were 42,938 people at 187 relief centres in seven affected districts.

Nearly half of them were in Temerloh, which had 20,962 evacuees, and another 11,063 in Pekan, a Pahang police headquarters flood operations room spokesman was quoted as saying by Bernama.

In Sabah, heavy rainfall since last Friday caused Sungai Menggalong to overflow, sparking a flash flood in south-western Sipitang district yesterday.

Several hundred people from six villages were affected by the floods, according to Sipitang police chief Mustafa Osma.

There were 1,105 evacuees in five shelters in three districts, including Kota Belud, yesterday evening, the state's Disaster Operations Control Centre said.

Kota Belud had the most evacuees at 821 people, followed by Kota Marudu with 265 evacuees and Pitas with 19 evacuees.

Kelantan, the most badly hit state, is still recovering from the deluge.

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It had only 9,957 people still at 99 shelters yesterday evening, compared to 24,020 yesterday morning, said Bernama.

Kuala Krai still had the most people - 3,636 - taking refuge at flood centres, according to a Kelantan Welfare Department spokesman.

The number of evacuees in Perak fell slightly to 6,775 people.

Johor had 116 people from 24 families at six shelters in Batu Pahat and Segamat.

The Star/Asia News Network


Shop owners struggling to get back in business

As residents of Kuala Krai in central Kelantan take stock of the damage wrought by the floods, small businesses are also struggling to get back on their feet.

Relief efforts are focused largely on ensuring that villagers get adequate food and water supplies, and on finding temporary housing for those affected, so shop owners say they must fend for themselves.

When The Sunday Times visited the town on New Year's Day, nine in 10 shops were still closed, their shutters caked in mud, in some cases all the way up to the signage at the top.

Mr Foo Chik Thai, 67, was sitting on a stool in front of his vehicle repair shop, Jackson Auto Electric. He had RM80,000 (S$30,200) in vehicle parts stored inside but "they're worthless now", he said, even as his daughter comforted him.

Along Jalan Ah Sang, a street wedged between two rows of shophouses, ruined items discarded by merchants were piled into small brown mounds outside.

Some residents picked at the heaps, looking for anything they could salvage.

Mr Gan Siew Choy, 41, who runs industrial equipment shop Eng Chong with his 47-year-old brother Siew Koh, was luckier.

Their shop had also been submerged, but their goods - water pumps, electric generators and leaf blowers - were still in demand even after having been exposed to the elements, snapped up by residents eager to begin the clean-up.

Even so, they were selling the tools at a loss. A drill set usually priced at RM180 went for just RM80.

"We can't just throw them away. If we can get back nearly the cost, we let them go," said Mr Gan. "Of course, people must do their own repairs."

Kuala Krai MP Mohd Hatta Ramli, from Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which runs the state, told The Sunday Times that businesses had been devastated because no one had expected flooding on this scale.

"Flooding is quite common here, but this is the first time it's been so bad," he said. "They've lost everything, and they cannot do any business at the moment. It will be at least a month or two before they can start again, so it's a big loss for them."

He and his grassroots leaders are working to distribute food, water and baby napkins to rural areas. Democratic Action Party (DAP) chief Lim Kit Siang was with him on one of these trips when we visited.

Prime Minister Najib Razak visited the state last Tuesday to offer relief and to assess the impact of the floods, but Mr Lim said he should have declared a state of emergency so that resources could be mobilised more effectively to help victims.

Datuk Sri Najib announced RM500 million in aid for residents whose homes and vehicles had been damaged by the floods.

Back in the state capital of Kota Baru, traders had slashed prices on waterlogged goods, including household appliances and food items - a packet of biscuits was going for RM1 instead of the usual RM3. With their shops urgently in need of repair, merchants were eager to unload as much as they could.

Also badly affected were those who manage rubber and oil palm smallholdings as many plantations had been flooded.

The Star reported that in Kelantan alone, there were 150,000 farmers and livestock breeders whose padi fields, vegetable plots, farm animals and fish ponds had been wiped out.

Lim Yan Liang


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What the floods left in their wake

Unusually heavy monsoon rains in the third week of December resulted in severe floods in the north-eastern states of Peninsular Malaysia, with Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang being the worst hit.

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The floods sealed off roads and wrecked entire villages. Many residents were forced to flee without warning.

At the peak, 150,000 residents were forced to leave their homes in Kelantan alone - the largest share of the 250,000 who had to be evacuated across Malaysia.

By last Friday, evacuees in Kelantan had dropped to 28,087 and were being housed at 153 relief centres, The Star reported.

Meanwhile, over in Pahang, the number of evacuees dropped to 44,591. For Terengganu, the figure fell as well, to 4,359.

The total damage to property and infrastructure in the affected states is still being tallied, but current estimates put the cost of the destruction at nearly RM1 billion (S$378 million).


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Lions, fans chip in for flood victims

More than 100 members of LionsXII fan group ExcluSinga turned up at Block 547, Pasir Ris Street 51 for a donation drive yesterday as part of the group's efforts to send supplies to flood victims in Malaysia.

Among the items collected were clothing, diapers and food, including more than 10 tonnes of rice.

ExcluSinga members such as operations technician Syed Faris (far right) were joined by LionsXII players like Faris Ramli and Isa Halim, as well as Football Association of Singapore president Zainudin Nordin (second from right).