Not just another monsoon and where is the leadership?

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I was a disaster relief volunteer with Mercy Malaysia during its early days. Among the missions I went to were the Afghanistan post-US bombings (2002), Sri Lanka floods (2003), Aceh post-tsunami (2004) and Sudan civil war (2005).

I used to be on a 48-hour notice. That means, if there was a disaster, I could be called to pack and leave within 48 hours. I’m no longer on that list. Now, I do my own thing. I am a freelance journalist and film-maker, and do my bit with friends and families where help is needed.

Last week, upon reading reports of the floods in Kelantan, I decided to call a few friends. From the little information, I gathered that supplies were going in, but distribution was and still is a problem. They could not reach kampungs that were cut off from main roads, many of which were submerged, cut off by broken bridges or landslides.

I own a pretty reliable 12-year-old open-cab Mitsubishi truck and decided to put it to good use. With three 4x4 trucks, six friends and I hit the open road last Tuesday, loaded up with canned food, instant noodles, drinking water, over-the-counter medicine, toiletries, candles, towels and sarongs — things people will need to temporarily weather the storm. We planned to go into hard-to-reach places left out by big distribution centres.

One of us had good contacts with the Jaringan Orang Asal Semenanjung (JOAS), so we decided to make distributions to Orang Asli villages our priority. Reports came in that the Orang Asli were the hardest hit due to their isolated locations and being inadvertently left out by distribution centres, not on purpose, but through lack of information. But I also had an obligation to deliver provisions to a friend’s family in Kuala Krai, Kelantan.

At Gua Musang, while one truck went east to Kampung Koh, we headed north to Kuala Krai. The other one had to return to Kuala Lumpur after emptying its provisions at an Orang Asli village near Jerantut.

Little could have prepared us for what we saw. On the stretch from Gua Musang to Kuala Krai, the disaster became increasingly worse from Manek Urai onwards. About 30km into Kuala Krai town, the extent of the damage revealed itself in greater severity on both sides of the road. Houses swept away with only foundations and their cement stairs left. Further down were mounds of debris of what used to be homes. Trees uprooted, oil palm plantations destroyed. On river banks that had been inundated were dead and decaying trees all covered in silt. Everything was the yellow ochre colour of silt.

The deluge did not just rise and fall. It had risen, taking along property, plants, livestock and even people, dropping them far away, or dumping them into the sea.

A day before our departure last Tuesday, I called up the Banjir Hotline in Kota Baru to find out about the situation in Kelantan. A lady by the name of Rohaya answered. She told me that she could not contact her family in Pasir Mas and she was worried sick, yet she was manning the hotline because it was her job.

Rohaya said that in Kuala Krai, the current was so strong that boats to bring in aid had capsized. That corresponded with what we saw after the water subsided — the extent of the damage caused by forceful moving mass of water. If it had come from the sea, it would have been called a tsunami. What I saw with my own eyes reminded me of post-tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia.

Here, though, the shocking thing is the lack of media attention on the extent of damage and destruction, and the government’s lack of will to provide coordination and responsible and useful information of what is really happening on the ground. Without central command and coordination, each department is doing their own thing. Praise is given when it is due. Kudos to the JKR (Public Works Department) website and Twitter for providing daily updates on road accessibility. But this information should come out from a central coordination command centre, which every volunteer aid worker can access to know the weather, what to bring, where to go and how to get there.

In Kuala Krai, we went to deliver provisions to a family friend who lives by the river behind a police station. Kak Su is eight months pregnant. Her husband, Wan, told us that flood waters started to rise at 2am; by 7am it was up to the roof.

“This has never happened in our 50 years of living in this kampung. This is the worst ever,” Kak Su said.

Elected representatives appeared to be more interested in showing themselves holding babies and delivering sacks of rice with their faces on them, rather than providing much-needed central coordination and useful information. In such a situation, a normal, functioning government would create a central crisis coordination centre that would provide (or attempt to provide as best it can):

1) Daily press briefings on the weather forecast and the situation on the ground.

2) Information on what is needed and where, areas which have not received aid, access roads, directions, coordinates on locations.

3) Information of contact persons on the ground (bilik gerakan), local coordination units responsible for collection centres and distribution.

4) Information on what to expect, and if it rains again, what people should do — How should people help? What are the things needed to survive the next wave? We can’t just live on rice and instant noodles.

5) Updates on medical response — How many hospitals and government clinics are incapacitated and where can people get medical aid? Where are medical provisions and doctors needed? Where should they go to provide medical aid?

6) Updates on numbers of people injured, missing and confirmed dead. — The Malaysian Insider

Jules Ong is a former disaster relief volunteer with Mercy Malaysia. He currently works as a freelance journalist and film-maker.

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on January 6, 2015.