Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Penang's great floods

When the rain came in the afternoon of 4 Nov, courtesy of Typhoon Damrey that had hit Vietnam, I was in Kuala Lumpur attending a seminar. As such, I had no idea at all of the ferocity of the storm nor the havoc it would create in Penang, both on the island and the mainland. It was only much later that night that my wife received a video on her mobile showing a flooded Nandaka Vihara at Bukit Mertajam.

The Nandaka Vihara flooded? Impossible to comprehend that at first because the meditation centre is located at the foothills of the Bukit Mertajam hill at Cherok Tokun. But when we then realised from the video that it was no joke, we grew concerned about the storm. Slowly through facebook and Whatsapp came information and pictures that showed floods everywhere.

The next morning came information that the streets of George Town were well under water. Not just water but murky muddy water as if the city had been drenched with teh tarek. And the rain was still falling.

We became concerned about our relatives in Penang, especially our son who stayed in an apartment off Dato Kramat. Only about a month earlier, the roads around the apartment had been flooded too and he had managed to drive his car into the apartment's compound, sharing a parking space with his landlady. We telephoned him and was told that he was okay. His car too, was dry. Well, that was a relief.

One of my sister-in-laws phoned to ask about us and our house in Bukit Mertajam. We told her that we didn't know. We hadn't been thinking about our house at all because we were staying in a rather elevated piece of land that wasn't flood-prone.

But I recalled that once this year when a particularly heavy rainfall touched home, water almost entered the houses on the opposite side of the back lane. Or maybe it did. At least an inch of water. But our house was about three feet above the back lane and we weren't affect. But just to be certain, my wife called a neighbour and was given the assurance that there weren't any floods in our neighbourhood.

Our thoughts then turned to our relatives. We had an aunt staying in Taman Sri Rambai in Bukit Mertajam. This has traditionally been a flood-prone area although in the past 20 years or so, there had been no floods there, thanks to an earlier flood mitigation programme initiated by the state government.

But in this particular case, because of the huge deluge, water had risen about three to four feet into most of the houses. All her furniture, electrical appliances and cars were damaged. Nothing except clothes and crockery sets could be salvaged once the flood water subsided.

We arrived back from Kuala Lumpur by train very late on 5 Nov night. A taxi driver whom we had contacted earlier at first couldn't commit to pick us up from the station because he said his place at Perda was flooded and he couldn't drive out. But later, we found him waiting for us at the station. The waters had subsided around his house, he grinned.

The next day, I drove to the Land Office in Bukit Mertajam, which had been converted into a flood relief centre, to join an old schoolmate friend in attempting to deliver foodstuff to some displaced Malay kampongs. It was very gratifying to see that the centre was filled with volunteers who were helping out with the distribution of food and other essential items. Even a monk was helping out.

One place that we went to was the Kampong Baru Alma. The surprising thing about this kampong, like many of the other urban Malay kampongs in Penang, was that it is located at the fringe of a modern middle-class community. There we were driving along perfectly tarred roads with neatly built double-storeyed houses lining both sides of the roads and suddenly, we turned a corner and entered another world of narrow, winding and uneven roads that led eventually to a haphazard collection of typical Malay kampong houses.

The social divide was so clear: the urban rich and the urban poor living together uneasily side-by-side. How many generation will it take to bridge this divide? Anyway, my friend distributed foodstuff to the affected families, 10 in all, and he came back again the next day with new mattresses for them. All their earthly belongings had been damaged by flood waters that had risen way above their heights.

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