Even as flood waters recede, questions are being asked – were the authorities sleeping?

Devastation, helplessness, fear, and anger swelled up and swamped social media as flood waters swept across seven states in one of Malaysia’s worst weekends on record.

Traditionally, East Coast states, especially Pahang, Terengganu, and Kelantan, would bear the brunt of massive floods, brought on by the year-end monsoons. No one thought that untold devastation would also be inflicted on Selangor and the Klang Valley.

In a late-night press conference on Saturday, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob said no one had expected the Klang Valley especially Selangor to be so badly hit by the floods.

The showers in the Klang Valley that started on Friday and continued until the early hours of Sunday morning, had dumped rainwater equal to the average rainfall for an entire month – something that only happens once in 100 years.

Environment and Water Ministry secretary-general Datuk Seri Zaini Ujang attributed this to the monsoon flow factors, and a low-pressure weather system that achieved the level of a tropical depression that formed in the South China Sea.

This was detected by the Meteorological Department on Dec 12.

He added that on Dec 16, the weather system entered Pahang and moved across to the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia, causing a rise in humidity and continuous heavy rain in almost every state in the peninsula.

The apparent lack of preparedness by the authorities in the Klang Valley caused delays in rescue operations in many parts of Selangor, especially in Klang, Shah Alam and Hulu Langat.

Emergency phone lines were clogged by a steady stream of calls that came in, pleading for help, food, supplies, or to be extracted from rising flood waters. It became next to impossible to get through.

In the end, ordinary Malaysians resorted to using social media to ask for assistance. Food banks were set up almost instantly, emergency kitchens were up and running within hours, with volunteers coming in from near and far.

A woman in one of the hardest-hit areas in Selangor – Setia Alam – opened up her home as a temporary shelter. The only ‘payment’ she would accept was that the ‘tenants’ helped out in the kitchen, preparing food to be distributed to flood victims and volunteers.

In Taman Sri Muda, Shah Alam, victims were trapped in their homes for more than two days. They included pregnant mothers, children and the elderly. People huddled together to keep warm. They were wet, cold, and suffered for days.

Many were forced to climb up to their roofs, to wait for help to arrive. Hours passed, and with help nowhere in sight, things began to look bleak, with food supplies running low, no potable water, baby formula, and diapers.

Many were close to despair, not knowing where, or who to reach out to. They were in danger of being completely cut off as the batteries on their mobile phones continued to be drained.

Were the authorities and decision-makers sleeping?

Yesterday, Kota Kemuning assemblyman V. Ganabatirau said four rescue boats, including three from the army, were sent to his constituency.

“Taman Sri Muda is the worst hit. Hundreds of thousands are stranded. Others are also trapped in Kampung Baru Hicom and Bukit Lanchong,” said Ganabatirau.

While grateful to Bangi MP Ong Kian Ming for bringing his own boats in aid of the rescue effort, Ganabatirau pleaded for help from government agencies.

“I am not interested in pointing fingers, but please… we need help, send help here. People need food and dry clothes… and we need a medical team.”

The lack of coordination among government departments was evident, as people were forced to resort to Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram, pleading to be rescued.

“We are doing all we can, but the government agencies appear to be clueless. Their response time is also slow,” lamented Klang MP, Charles Santiago.

“There’s no point in telling us about the number of relief centres… the more important question is, how do we get these people to the relief centres? There must be better coordination. Elected representatives must not be left out of the loop, as people are reaching out to us for help,” he said.

Should the authorities have anticipated this?

If the Meteorological Department had detected the weather system on Dec 12 and had known that it would make landfall on Dec 16, the authorities, theoretically, would have had more than enough time to activate their emergency disaster protocols.

Climate change experts should have also been roped in, to help the authorities make informed decisions.

A public health and disaster management expert concurred, saying everyone appeared to have been caught off guard, not because there was no warning, but because they failed to consult academicians.

“The decision-makers appeared not to be guided by science. The increase in the tides in Klang and Shah Alam had been predicted well in advance,” said the expert, who requested anonymity.

“We have poor coordination when it comes to crisis management. We saw this at the peak of Covid-19. The same thing is happening now,” he added.

And no thanks to the lack of preparedness, we are now facing a potentially even bigger disaster with regard to Covid-19, as thousands of flood victims are crammed into makeshift relief centres.

The economic impact of this disaster would be unimaginable. Shops, factories, hypermarkets, and other businesses have not been spared by the floods. Some factories in Klang were submerged in flood waters as deep as eight metres.

These businesses were only just recovering from the crippling effects of the numerous Movement Control Orders. A second body blow delivered by the floods would be difficult to recover from.

Whatever financial aid the government is planning to hand out to the victims, will be a drop in the ocean. It will not be enough.

The sad truth is, the debilitating effects of the floods could have been mitigated if those in power had heeded the warning signs and had acted quickly.

The question now is, who will be held responsible, and are we destined to repeat this, like the ebb and flow of the tides?

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