PART ONE: THE FLOODS

 

The river burst its banks and a rush of debris followed, with no warning except motorcycle repairman Muhammad Shaifi’s piercing cry: “Jangan tidur, jangan tidur! Bangun, sudah banjir!” Don’t sleep, don’t sleep! It is flooding!

.

Before anyone could react, angry waters engulfed the cars by the road, tossing them around like toys. Fences collapsed, garbage flowed swiftly downstream. Wooden pallets, plastic sheets, and motorcycles were strewn across the alleys.

 

22 Oct 2013, 7:00pm

Torrential rain hit Ringlet town and Bertam Valley. More than 80mm of rainfall was recorded in less than a day, when the monthly total usually stood at 250mm.

22 Oct 2013, 11:00pm

For the first time in the history of the 50-year-old reservoir, the water level surged at 1.5ft per hour — a rate that's three times more than in a normal monsoon season.

23 Oct 2013, 12:00am

Surplus water had to be discharged in stages. The first wave was released, causing the nearby Bertam River to suddenly rise and breach its banks.

Sirens and cries pierced the silence
of the night. Coupled with the roaring
waters and crashing vehicles, the
commotion woke the entire valley.

Earlier that night, less than a kilometre
upstream, the Sultan Abu Bakar Dam had
breached its danger level after a period
of relentless rain. It prompted the dam
operator to release the excess water to
prevent a dam collapse.

Unfortunately, the valley, shaped like a funnel, ended up pushing the churning floodwaters right into Bertam Valley village, on the midnight of 22 October 2013.

.

As Shaifi struggled to keep his head above the turbulent waters, there was nothing he could do but shout to alert his neighbours.

.

Many tried to escape, but it was too late. The swelling water — pushing against doors and devouring vehicles — had blocked all means of escape.

.

In their desperation, the villagers, still clad in pajamas, rushed up to the second storeys of their homes and waited nervously for the flood waters to recede. With the electricity supply cut off, the village plunged into darkness.

Interactive Map

Click on the tabs on the right to visit some of the flood victims, and roll over the map to view the affected areas.

“Ibu! Ibu!” Mother! Mother! Shaifi yelled
into the pitch black from the safety of
higher ground, his voice escalating with
panic. His mother was still inside the
house, trying to salvage her belongings.

Trapped inside the house, Shaifi’s mother Sofia Binte Bakar found herself tossed around like a rag doll by the waters, crashing into furniture and walls.

The 63-year-old clawed at the kitchen window, shouting out to her son for help as water filled her mouth. The waters had almost reached the ceiling of their apartment.

.

Just as the strong currents were dragging Sofia underwater, Shaifi located her and broke the window separating them using a wooden plank.

.

Sofia narrowly escaped death.

Struggling through the floodwaters at waist-level, mother and son found their way to safety at the nearby SKJC Bertam Valley School. There, others had already taken up their corners, ready to wait out the floods.

.

Barely two hours after Shaifi and Sofia made the school their refuge, the dam discharged again at 2:43am.

.

They decamped to the school’s second level and continued their wait till eight in the morning when the floods had fully receded.

.

In the eerie quiet, villagers headed back to their homes to inspect the damage. The silence was broken only by the rumble of excavators, which chugged towards the skeletons of houses, ready to start cleanup operations.

.

Nothing was left of Shaifi’s home.

23 Oct 2013, 12:30am

Power was cut across the valley. The siren from the dam kept sounding, indicating that there will be another release of water.

23 Oct 2013, 1:00am

The dam staggered its release of water at 1am. At 2.43am, the gates swung open and the waters ran in full force.

23 Oct 2013, 3:00am

Most of the affected residents were evacuated to the local police station. Another group spent the night at the SKJC Bertam Valley School.

In the eerie quiet, villagers headed back to
their homes to inspect the damage. The
silence was broken only by the rumble of
excavators, which chugged towards the
skeletons of houses, ready to start
cleanup operations.

Nothing was left of Shaifi’s home.

Gradually, buzzing from rescue workers’ walkie-talkies and murmurs from the growing crowd filled the air as policemen drew up safety lines around the damaged houses.

.

For Shaifi, there was hardly anything left to salvage from his home. His heart sank when he spotted the rubble.

.

“We built this house from scratch and lived here for more than 13 years. Now, we have nothing,” he said.

Floods like this never happen, he said. The dam always releases water at this time of the year, but it has never been this bad.

Shell-shocked villagers wandered around aimlessly. Others sat by their houses, crying.

.

The entire village was devoured overnight.
.

Not many houses were spared. Cars were buried under mounds of mud. Entire chunks of bridges disappeared. Gnarled zinc pieces that used to make up roofs lay scattered on the ground.

.

The villagers trudged through the muddy sludge, stopping in front of bricks that used to be homes. They held closer to one another.

.

It was a terrible sight.

A 48-year-old Indonesian vegetable
farm worker, Anipan, was found dead
by rescue workers along the river.

They respectfully covered the victim
with their jackets, while the survivors,
not knowing what else to do, waited by
the side as the police took him away.

The villagers, most of them farmers, had lost three of their own to the flood.

.

On top of the lives lost and homes destroyed, the village was also dealt a harsh psychological blow.

.

“It felt as though I had died; it was an excruciating experience,” said Shaifi. “Rainy nights in Bertam Valley were never the same again.”

.

“We were relocated to the furthest end of Bertam Valley, a place without constant electricity or water supply. There wasn’t even a telephone line,” he said.

After 8 months of living without proper amenities, Shaifi and his mother decided that they had enough.Pooling together incomes with two other families with two other families, they rented a house near where they used to live, forking out RM600 per month in total.

.

This trauma lingers among the survivors.

.

“Every time I think about the flood, I feel like crying,” Sofia said. “But I’m better now. It has been more than a year since it happened.”

.
After rebuilding their lives following the 2013 flood, the survivors were not expecting another one.

Yet, less than a year from the first
flood, disaster struck again.

On 5 and 6 November 2014, more than
20 houses in Ringlet Town, Ringlet New
Village, Kampung Ulu Merah Ringlet, and
Bertam Valley were submerged in
knee-deep flood waters.

At least three people were killed and
five injured. Electricity supply to the
affected villages was again cut off,
for weeks.

People started to take to the streets
in protest.

Having been relocated to their new
home by then, Shaifi and his family
were safe this time round.

Now, survivors and government leaders
started asking, “Who’s responsible?”