Rescuers struggle to reach flood victims in Malaysia as anger mounts over slow response

Local residents use trucks to cross flooded streets in Pengkalan Chepa, near Kota Baru on Dec 27, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Local residents use trucks to cross flooded streets in Pengkalan Chepa, near Kota Baru on Dec 27, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

PENGKALAN CHEPA, Malaysia (AFP) - Rescue teams struggled on Saturday to reach inundated areas of north-east Malaysia as victims accused the government of being slow to provide assistance after the country's worst flooding in decades.

Malaysians have vented their anger at Prime Minister Najib Razak after the release of photos that went viral on social media showing him playing golf with United States President Barack Obama during the storms.

The number of people forced to flee their homes climbed past 130,000, with weather forecasters warning of no respite for the north-eastern states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang.

The under-fire Datuk Seri Najib arrived in Kelantan on Saturday to lead the national flood response after cutting short his vacation in Hawaii, and was expected to meet flood victims.

The government has allocated about US$14 million (S$18.5 million) to manage relief centres.

Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin admitted rescuers were facing challenges with power outages and roads being washed away by the floods.

"I admit the situation is challenging to the rescue workers and we are trying our best to make sure that the food arrives to the victims depending on the flood situation," he was quoted as saying by The Star newspaper.

Military helicopters and trucks were seen in Kota Baru area, which is near the border with southern Thailand, but rescue efforts were being hampered by fast rising waters and strong currents while roads to hard-hit areas were impassable.

"The severity and scale of the floods had taken the authorities completely by surprise as it was worse than anticipated, overwhelming all disaster management plans and preparations," Mr Lim Kit Siang, veteran opposition MP with the Democratic Action Party said in a statement on Saturday.

Kelantan, one of the worst-affected areas, is led by the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and is one of the poorest states in the country.

From the air, parts of the state capital Kota Baru resembled a vast, muddy lake, with row after row of rooftops peeking out of the murky waters.

Tempers were frayed among people sheltering at a crowded relief centre just outside Kota Baru, with fears the situation would worsen as it continued to rain in surrounding areas.

"I am angry with them (the government). We don't care about their politics. We just want the government to do what they should do and help us," 23-year-old Ms Farhana Suhada, who works for a courier service, told AFP.

Holding on tightly to her six-month-old baby, she said: "For breakfast I had three biscuits and tea. There's not enough water and no food at all for my baby. I had to buy my own milk."

Ms Suhada was forced to abandon her home four days ago after flood waters rose quickly almost to neck level.

"I have lost everything, including huge damage to my house and my car and motorcycle," said Ms Suhada, who was among 200 people seeking refuge in a two-storey school.

Many flood victims were seen lying on the floor while children ran around.

Nur Fatin Nurnabilah, 13, said it was her first experience of floods and was afraid for her family's future.

"I am scared and I miss my home," she said. I am scared because I can't swim. And we lost everything we had."

The Universiti Sains Malaysia hospital, located in Kota Baru, was busy handling flood victims flown in from nearby areas – including a pregnant woman from Pasir Mas district where strong winds and currents have made rescue operations difficult.“It’s been three days, but the currents are still very strong and the bad weather conditions are making it difficult for everyone,” a rescue worker told AFP on condition of anonymity.