Rains, floods, tears: weekend landslides shatter lives in central Vietnam

By Xuan Ngoc   November 19, 2018 | 05:28 pm PT
Nha Trang authorities and residents were not prepared for the speed with which disaster struck last weekend.

Sunday morning, Dinh Thi Sang and her family stood out in the open, drenched, with no roof above their head.

Their home had collapsed in a midnight downpour. 

"It was raining heavily, and it was pitch black out there. I heard the sound of water leaking from the roof, so I tried to find something to stop it," she said, eyes filling up.

A loud crash soon followed, and her house was reduced to a pile of rubble. 

Sang escaped, but her son-in-law and 4-month-old grandson were buried in the rubble. Thanks to neighbors who responded very quickly, they were rescued. 

Many fellow residents of Nui neighborhood in Thanh Phat Village, Phuoc Dong Commune, on the outskirts of the popular central resort town Nha Trang, shared Sang’s fate of losing their homes, but some did not make it.

Sang remembers hearing cries for help coming from one of her neighbors’ home. The cries started to get smaller and smaller, until it was drowned out by the raging waters.

"Their house was buried so deep I could barely see any of it. We tried to find them, but couldn’t." 

Around 300 families live in the Nui neighborhood, most of them making their living from the sea. Their poverty meant all they could afford to build was make-shift homes near a mountain slope. 

The residents are used to storms and floods, but they’d never seen anything like what happened last weekend.

As of Tuesday morning, at least 17 had been killed in Nha Trang due to landslides triggered by heavy rain caused by the Toraji typhoon, officials said, adding two others are missing. The typhoon weakened into a tropical depression on Sunday morning.

The city recorded rainfall of approximately 370mm between Saturday night and Sunday night. Rainfall of above 180mm a day is considered heavy.

Heavy rains eroded the local terrain, triggering numerous landslides in the area that burying people in dirt and rubble. At least four died in Thanh Phat Village, and many others are still missing.

A man searchs for belongings from his collapsed house in Nha Trang. Photo by VnExpress/Xuan Ngoc

A man searchs for belongings from his collapsed house in Nha Trang. Photo by VnExpress/Xuan Ngoc

Pham Thi Hoa, a long time resident of Thanh Phat Village, said she had never seen any flood like this before. Even last year, when the Damrey storm hit the province, only roofs and trees were blown away where she lived, she said. Damrey was one of the deadliest typhoons that ever hit Vietnam, killing 106 people in November last year, including 44 in Khanh Hoa.

When her home began getting flooded, her family couldn’t do anything but pray until they were rescued.

"Everything happened so quickly," said Dinh Ngoc Duong, a resident of the Phuoc Dong Commune, about the suddenness with which the landslides struck. 

He saw three people, including two women, holding onto an electric wire for dear life as the flood waters raged around them. But he couldn’t do anything to help.

Fortunately for them, the people were rescued after an hour. 

Hundreds of response force personnel, police and soldiers have been dispatched to rescue the people still buried under the rubble in Nha Trang, said Nguyen Xuan Canh, Chief of the provincial Police and Firefighting Department.

"We had to overturn every single rock to look for people," he said. Because of the number of houses that had collapsed and the mud and rocks covering the terrain, rescue operations were. People had to dig into the earth with bare hands where bulldozers couldn’t operate.

The landslides paralyzed traffic in several areas. Several roads in Nha Trang were also heavily flooded during the weekend. 

The National Highway 27 segment from Nha Trang to the nearby Da Lat in the Central Highlands was blocked by hundreds of cubic meters of rocks and dirt, impeding traffic. 

The local Cu Hin Mountain Pass was also bombarded by approximately 1,500 cubic meters of rocks, completely jamming the road connecting Nha Trang to the Cam Ranh Airport.

Fortunately, the waters started to recede Sunday night, freeing some roads and the railway route in some affected areas.

Urbanization blamed

"[The landslides] were beyond our imagination in their severity, with heavy consequences," said Le Tan Ban, director of the provincial Department of Agriculture. He also said the weekend downpour was the heaviest in years.

Echoing Ban, Vo Anh Kiet, deputy director of the Southcentral Center for Hydro-meteorological Forecasting, said the rainfall levels during the weekend were abnormal, reaching approximately 320mm in a mere six hours on Sunday, breaking all previous rainfall records in the city.

Nha Trang Chairman Le Huu Tho said that areas where landslides killed people were not included in the list of landslide-prone areas given to city authorities. This made it difficult to respond in time when the disaster struck, he added. 

The city’s Planning Department blamed the severe flooding on the high speed of urbanization in recent years. Traffic and drainage systems were not able to keep up with the continuous construction of buildings and other infrastructures, the department explained. 

"Prolonged, relentless rains created strong water flows that could not be drained, leading to flooding and erosion, triggering landslides," one unnamed official from the department said.

Storm drains are unplugged to help alleviate Nha Trangs flooding. Photo by VnExpress/Xuan Ngoc

Storm drains are unplugged to help alleviate Nha Trang's flooding. Photo by VnExpress/Xuan Ngoc

Meanwhile, weather stations have forecast a new storm would enter the South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea, on Wednesday, in conjunction with the incoming northeast monsoon. This would mean more heavy rain in the central and south-central regions in the coming days.

Vietnam was struck by a record-breaking number of 16 tropical storms in 2017 that left 389 people dead or missing and injured 668 others, mostly in northern and central regions.

In the first ten months of the year, natural disasters left 185 people dead or missing and injured 134 others, and cost the country more than VND8.8 trillion ($381 million), according to the General Statistics Office.

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