'Left with nothing': In a flash, floods upend lives of thousands

By Dac Thanh   November 7, 2020 | 04:00 pm PT
Nguyen Thi Minh Vuong has seen something she can never unsee, and something she would never want to see again.

She can never forget the sight of her entire house and that of others, makeshift as they were, being washed away like toys. And it happened in the blink of an eye.

Vuong had a vacant look on her face when she returned to where her house once stood.

Holding her 18-month-old son, the divorced, single mother said she had no idea what she would do next for a living. Vuong, 27, lives in the remote mountainous commune of Phuoc Thanh in Phuoc Son District, Quang Nam Province.

Before the split happened, she and her husband had collected wood from the local forest to build a 70 square meter house, and used old, bent corrugated iron sheets and its roof. She cooked sticky rice to sell every morning and ran a groceries shop. She earned around VND100,000 ($4.31) each day from the two ventures. After the divorce, Vuong raised her son on her own at the house.

On October 28, Storm Molave, the most powerful to have hit Vietnam in two decades, made landfall in the central provinces of Quang Nam and Quang Ngai. The central region had already suffered torrential rains and widespread flooding in the preceding weeks, but Vuong’s village had not been affected much.

Nguyen Thi Minh Vuong holds her son as she sits on a debris left behind by a flash flood that destroyed her village on October 28, 2020. Photo by Vnexpress/Dac Thanh

Nguyen Thi Minh Vuong holds her son as she sits on debris left behind by a flash flood that destroyed her village on October 28, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh.

Vuong’s house stood at the foot of a mountain and around 10 meters from a stream. She assessed that in the worst case scenario, the floods would only reach the door of the house. So she made her son take a nap and propped up all her belongings. Her fellow villagers also prepared for the eventuality in a similar manner, not doing much more.

To say that their calculations backfired would be an understatement. The storm made landfall in the morning and around 3 p.m. when it was raining torrentially, the villagers heard a commune official shouting: "Run, run now, flash floods!"

Very quickly, Vuong took her son and rushed out of the house. From a high, safer place, she saw her entire house being swept away: "The floods tore down every house in the way. In just two minutes, my house collapsed and drifted away in the murky water."

The floods swept away 46 other houses in the village that day.

Rendered homeless and completely destitute in minutes, Vuong and her neighbors were evacuated to the medical center of Phuoc Thanh Commune.

For the past 10 days, Vuong and her son have been completely reliant on relief handed over by different people.

For now, she is thinking about taking her son back to her native place in Que Son District and seek help from relatives.

"Four years away from home to build my own life, now I am left with nothing."

Ho Thi Kip, 55, another villager in Phuoc Thanh Commune, has been living at her brother’s house for days after her house was wrecked.

Kip lived by herself in a house that had been built over 10 years. She worked as a nanny, looking after local children when their parents got work on the farms. In return, she got paid with food. "Everything’s gone now. I don’t know what to do for a living anymore."

Ho Thi Kip by the local children in her village in Phuoc Thanh Commune of Quang Nam Provinces Phuoc Son District. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh

Ho Thi Kip with children in her village in Phuoc Thanh Commune, Phuoc Son District, Quang Nam Province. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh.

Ho Van Phuc, chairman of Phuoc Thanh Commune, said the flash floods destroyed more than 90 houses in the commune and it was fortunate that no one died.

Over the past nine days, those who lost their houses have been helped to move together with their relatives or at offices in the area. Along with other communities hit by floods in the central province, residents of Phuoc Thanh have trekked through forests and badly damaged traffic infrastructure to bring back food and other essential products.

"For now, there is enough food to use for 10 days for the 1,900 people in the commune," said Phuc.

A resident of the province’s Dai Loc District, Nguyen Thi Le, 54, said it was lucky that she and her husband were still alive.

"If we had been late by just five minutes, the floods would have swept us away. Even our bodies would not have been found by now," she said. But the couple have nothing else except their lives after the house they lived in for almost 30 years has been totally destroyed. They used to earn a living from making noodles and wine, and raising pigs.

Nguyen Thi Le sits on what used to be her house in Quang Nams Dai Loc District. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh

Nguyen Thi Le sits on what used to be her house in Quang Nam's Dai Loc District. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh.

Quang Nam is one of five provinces hit hard by floods and landslides in October alongside Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Thua Thien Hue, and Quang Ngai.

The day storm Molave landed, two landslides struck Tra Leng and Tra Van communes in Quang Nam’s Nam Tra My District.

The Tra Van landslide buried 20, killing eight and injuring 12 while in Tra Leng, a mountain collapsed on 55 villagers. Thirty-three managed to escape, eight died and 14 are still missing.

A day later in Quang Nam’s Phuoc Loc Commune, another landslide buried 11 victims. Eight have died and the other three are missing.

Thousands of central Vietnam residents are in the same boat, shell shocked and facing an uncertain future.

Wiping tears from her face, Le said: "Now we are empty handed. The house and all our possessions are gone. The floods did not even leave behind the foundation of the house.

"I have no idea when we will get our old life back. We have no money and all the tools needed for making wine and noodles are gone."

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