Vietnamese in semi-basement flats recall nightmare during Korea flooding

By Xanh Le   August 16, 2022 | 11:42 pm PT
Vietnamese in semi-basement flats recall nightmare during Korea flooding
Workers clear debris from a sopping semi-subterranean apartment in Seoul on Aug. 11, 2022. Photo by AFP
A few days have passed but Giang*, 23, is still dazed by the flooding that occurred on August 8 following record rainfall in the South Korean capital Seoul.

She says: "This is the first time I have experienced a flood like this. All of a sudden, water kept gushing out from my toilet. I had to use a rag to block the sewage pipes."

The Vietnamese student was scared because she did not know how to deal with it. She called her landlords but they did not pick up the phone. Finally she had to ask for help from her Korean neighbors, who also live in a semi-basement apartment.

"They helped me check if the sewage pipes around my apartment were choked."

The semi-basement apartments in which Giang and her neighbors live are known as "banjiha" in Korean. These apartments drew public attention recently after three people were found dead in one of them in Seoul on August 9.

According to the Korea Herald, the victims appeared to have been trapped as rainwater kept flowing into their apartment.

The trio were among at least 11 deaths linked to the overnight rain in and around Seoul.

That night Giang and her roommate bailed water out of their banjiha for 30 minutes until it stopped pouring in, but her apartment was left musty.

Giang says: "The rainy season in Korea lasts from June to August, making the banjiha musty. We have to open the doors and windows frequently to avoid mold."

The apartments do not have enough open space for sunlight to enter, she says.

"Many don’t have windows. In some, the windows cannot be opened, or sometimes their occupants do not want to open them to protect their privacy."

Built in the 1970s as shelters during a period of escalating tension on the Korean peninsula, semi-basement apartments are now home to students, immigrant workers, and young couples in Seoul, given the fact that housing prices are steep.

According to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, the city had around 200,000 of them as of 2020, or 5% of all households in the city.

Quang Khai, 23, a student, lives in one of the five areas most affected by the rainfall. He spent three days cleaning his 15-meter square semi-basement apartment after the floodwaters drained. It is the heaviest rain he has witnessed in nearly five years of living in Korea.

"It started raining at around 8 pm on August 8. At that time I heard someone saying there was a flood outside, but I did not think the situation would be so serious."

At around 9 pm water from the street began to flow down into his banjiha, and within half an hour the water was ankle-deep.

"That was when I woke my roommate up to scoop water out of our apartment."

At 10 pm it was still raining cats and dogs. The rainwater could not flow out because the drains were choked. The water in his apartment was calf-high, but outside it was already waist-high.

"The water pressure on the door prevented us from opening it, and so I was compelled to stay inside," Khai says.

All he could do at that time was sit on the kitchen sink and helplessly see his clothes and furniture float around.

"The water smelled foul. I saw scum in the water. To be honest, it was no different from dirty water in a toilet. I had never experienced a flood like this, and did not know what to do."

The water kept flowing down into the apartment until midnight, and so Khai simply gave up. "My clothes were all soaked."

Later he finally found a way to get out.

At 1:30 in the morning the rain stopped.

"I borrowed a water pump from my landlord to bail water out of my apartment."

At 3 am, his banjiha was still messy. He took some clothes and went to a friend's house to stay, planning to return the next day to clean the apartment.

Phi*, 35, is a construction worker who has been living in Seoul for 11 years. Speaking to VnExpress, he recalls the time he almost died of a flood earlier this year. The terrifying experience still haunts him.

He says: "Rainwater seeped slowly into my semi-basement apartment because the door blocked its flow. When I opened the door, the water flowed in a cascade. I woke my house mates up to get out. We took nothing with us except our passports and mobile phones. I felt scared because I had never seen such a flood. If the door had been stuck, I could have died in that apartment."

The Vietnamese worker says owners of semi-basement apartments often warn their tenants about the risk of flooding during the rainy season.

"They say if it rains continuously for two or three hours, we have to open the door to check for flooding and get out of our apartment. If we leave the door closed when there is a flood outside, the water pressure will prevent us from opening it, and we could be trapped in an apartment full of water."

Now afraid of the risks, he stayed in that banjiha for only two more months before moving up to the ground floor though the cost was higher.

After the floods on August 8, Giang and her friend too plan to move to an apartment above ground.

Giang says: "My apartment has become moldy now. We do not realize it because we live here, but guests say it has a musty smell. We don’t want to live here any longer. We will look for a first- or second-floor apartment with space for sunlight to get in. Even if the price is higher, it will be worth it."

Although Khai had to replace most of his furniture, he has decided to remain in the apartment.

"I thought I should move to an apartment on the ground, but now I don’t want to. The fact is such heavy rain is rare. If it happens again, I only need a water pump to handle it."

Phi says the reason why people keep living in the banjiha is economic.

"The deposit on a semi-basement apartment is usually lower than on many other types of houses, at least half cheaper. For example, the deposit on an apartment on the ground is around VND100 million ($4,272) at least. For semi-basement apartments, the deposit is only VND 40-50 million."

Seoul officials said recently they would consult with the government to amend the laws to completely ban underground and semi-basement housing.

The city also plans to curb the construction of banjiha until the construction laws are amended.

(*): Names in this article are changed.

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