Surviving the Great Floods of 2022 in NE Thailand (Part 1)

It’s been six weeks since my last post…

On October 5th, at around 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon, I wrote about how the whole country was flooding from heavy rains of the past week and how our neighborhood usually floods, but that this time the drainage systems in our area were working really well.

Later that evening, Nam and I gathered shovels and twine and started helping people from the neighborhood fill sandbags just down our street in an effort to block off rising waters from the rear of our estate, where there’s marshland on an open property. Our entire housing estate (which has expanded greatly since we built our house 13 years ago), was originally all rice fields and open land. Nam’s mom warned us that it was a low area that was prone to flooding, but the worst it ever flooded was just enough to wet our driveway and barely reach the house. </foreshadowing>

After an hour of filling sandbags and lifting them onto trucks, we were beat, and it was getting obvious that this flooding might get bad. Still, it didn’t seem too bad, but we decided to take Nam’s car to her mom’s dormitory on higher ground, about ten minutes away. On the way there, Nam asked if I wanted to turn around and get my car out of there as well, but it didn’t seem like it would flood so badly, so I said no, wondering if I was making the right decision. When we got to my mother in law’s place, Nam’s younger sister gave us a ride back home. The street in front of our house was slightly flooded, but no big deal. A couple hours later, it looked like this, which is the highest it had ever been.

Throughout the course of flooding, which was extremely bad but shorter than anticipated – in our neighborhood (they predicted our hood would be flooded for a month or two, but it was pretty much dry in less than a week – we never lost power, so I have chat logs all through out our time spent inside the house, even though we were completely surrounded by water. In fact the last message I sent out to the family on the night of the 5th was, “there’s no rain or wind, we have internet and aircon, but the water is silently rising. Weird.”

In the photo above, the water is only a couple inches high in our driveway, which is sloped towards the street. However, that means that the water is more than a foot deep in the street, which is high enough to bog down my car. It was too late to drive out of there without risking the Crown’s engine and blocking the road for trucks and lifted vehicles, so I pulled the battery cables, chocked the wheels, and pulled everything I could out of it… I didn’t have time to pull the amps or any of the audio system.

After I took that photo around 11:20 PM, the water started rising very fast. Unbeknownst to us, officials in Khon Kaen had decided to open flood gates to relieve pressure on the over capacity Ubolrat Dam, which in turn caused earthen holding walls to break at the nearby reservoir at Gang Lern Jaan. This caused a rush of water from streams and creeks that had never caused flooding in the recent past. The resulting flood was, in fact, the worst in 45 years. When the flood rose about another foot higher than shown in the photo, we decided it was time to bug out. We hurriedly gathered the most important stuff together, put Mina’s cat, Pickle, in a pet carrier, turned off the main house breaker, and ventured out into the dark waters in the driveway, where we waited for a truck to pass by (normal cars and motorcycles had completely stopped coming down the street hours before).

A black Vigo came by a couple minutes later, and the guy was happy to give us a ride out of there. We jumped in the open bed and stopped again just down the street when a couple of uni kids waded out in the street asking for a ride. As we drove down the street just down from our house, a couple yelled at us to slow down from the open window of their brightly-lit house, but it was too late. The wake created by our truck passing by in the flooded street crashed through their open front door (which was only a couple inches above the water line) and rushed into the living room, bouncing off the far wall and rippling back again. The woman sat on the couch and got splashed a bit and the guy went to close the door, much too late to accomplish anything. They both cursed as we passed by, a surreal memory burned in my mind, as adrenaline coursed through my veins. That pattern of adrenaline rush and subsequent dump would stay with me though the next few weeks.

UPDATE Dec. 1: It’s now been a couple weeks since I started writing this post. My words are all jammed up and I’m just… busy. Or maybe tired, as I never really spun down from the mad times that resulted from the flood. I have decided to write about it in installments, for fear of never publishing anything on this blog again… I’m hoping that publishing one post clears the logjam in my mind, so here goes…

VIDEO UPDATE: I’m adding this short video just to show the level of the water on the first night on our front stairs, which were the standard for gauging the severity of flooding throughout the following week.

Sumoto River Construction Update

One of the berms they built on the river yesterday partially collapsed, leaving a tracked crane stranded out on the water. I was driving by and saw as it happened. Now I have seen a lot of things swallowed by the river – houses, rice fields, even a brand new 350z, but a crane? That would be something new.
But the owner of the crane wasn’t ready to give up on it yet. He sent his men out on a boat, and they probed the sunken area of the berm with bamboo poles. It appeared the road had sunk around half a meter into the river. One man got off the boat and into the driver’s compartment of the crane. He started the engine, then revved the hell out of it in long, angry bursts. Diesel smoke hung over the river like a scene from some nameless Vietnam war movie. And then the crane lurched forward!
To other cars passing by, it must have seemed like the crane was driving over water – a sort of Frying Dutchman, trying to round the Cape of Sumoto in a Kubota crane. In fact, the sight of it almost caused an accident – there were sounds of tires screeching on the main road, but no sound of impact.
Today, on my bus ride to work, I saw fish upriver of the construction zone for the first time since the big typhoon two years ago! They looked and acted like carp, but experience tells me they are mullet, even if all of their pathways to the ocean seem blocked by all the spill barriers and earthen berms put up by the construction crews.
Before the big typhoon and the flooding, the river was filled with all kinds of fish, both fresh and salt water (and the mullet, which can live in either). Crabs, too. And they used to raise unagi in there, as well… I hope it all returns someday. Right now it is so muddy from the construction that I doubt anything but the hardiest fish can live in there.
You know, I really am going to have to take my camera out there sometime before they finish up. It is quite amazing how they have channelized the river so far.

Wherein nature’s fury becomes relevant

In an official document today, I used the following reason for changing a parts supplier:
“Supplier’s factory destroyed by typhoon.”
The situation described isn’t funny; I just never imagined someday writing those words.
The day of the typhoon, I drove right by that factory. That area got completely washed out when the river overflowed; if I had been there just an hour later my car would have suffered the same fate as the many others that had to be pulled out of rice paddies and sinkholes in the weeks to follow.
Note: If you are interested, my Typhoon Tokage blog posts are archived here, and the liveblogging from my keitai during evacuation is here.

Damage Report

First off, me and mine are OK. I know the rest of the world can hardly be expected to notice yet another typhoon hitting our little island this year, but let me tell you, this one was by far the worst. It has caused destruction on a scale I have not seen in person since the Hanshin earthquake almost a decade ago (although, luckily, it wasn’t nearly as destructive as that).
The big river that runs through Sumoto overflowed for the first time in anyone’s memory (perhaps the first time, ever), as did most of its branches and tributaries. The city, for the most part, was not prepared for flooding on this scale as it simply had never happened before.
The peak of the flooding was around the time I made my last post yesterday, although in my house we weren’t even aware of it save for news reports. Luckily, we live far enough away from the water and on a slight rise, which made all the difference. People living near the rivers, especially those on lower ground and geographic depressions were hit very hard. My brother and I walked around my neighborhood late last night after the typhoon had left, and were fairly shocked to see the extent of the flooding.
All of the bridges had soggy reeds and various other debris caught on the railings and lamp posts indicating the depth of their submersion at one point. People had started hosing and sweeping mud out of their houses and small shops, a sight we would see throughout the rest of our walk. Along the river bank, we came upon an old lady in tears, whose entire house had been inundated with river silt. She was fishing out what muddy possessions she could and hanging them on the frame of her ancient bicycle. We wanted to offer a hand, but she just glared at us and didn’t want to be bothered. We walked on. Further upstream, a man was dumping plastic jerrycans filled with kerosene into the river (which at that point had receded somewhat but was still flowing much swifter than usual). I caught snippets of what he was saying to someone in the house and it appeared he was angry because the river water had contaminated the fuel. In a frustrated rage, he was tossing the tainted jerrycans in the river as if to say, here, just take it all you hungry bitch.
We came up to our recently-discovered neighborhood bar where we are on close terms with the master, Hirata-san. He was inside, so we stepped in to talk. The wooden floor was covered in mud, and the place had obviously been hit pretty hard by the floodwater. Hirata-san was in a daze, and just kept repeating, “I don’t know where to start (the cleanup) from.” His story of the flooding explained the state of mind we found him in:
Between 3 and 4 in the afternoon, he had been taking precautions just in case the flooding got much worse when all of a sudden he was standing waist-deep in the river of brown water that rushed through the front door. Right before his eyes, all of the refrigerators, sound system components, the DVD projector, almost everything was ruined.
It was kind of hard to say anything – what do you say when someone loses their livelihood like that – but I was kind of worried about him. So we stuck around for a while and discussed the merits of immediately washing out as much mud as possible before it dried vs. saying “fuckit,” ripping out the floor panels at leisure, and starting all over. I think we’ ll go by and check on him again tonight.
On the way to work today I wasn’t so surprised to find that there were neighborhoods hit harder than mine, but the amount of devastation was unreal. All the streets are covered in slippery mud, causing serious traffic problems. Every house and every shop along both sides of the main river got flooded. The bad areas look like small lakes still. The places lucky enough to be on higher ground so the water could drain away after the storm were left with several inches of stinky river silt left on their floors.
The Self-Defense Force guys got called down from the base in Himeiji to help out, and they were out in numbers. What the fuck for I still don’t know, because they were mostly just looking at cars that fell into the river and smoking cigarettes, just like everyone else. I suppose they might have brought some some engineers for damage assessment or something, but from their pressed and decidedly un-muddied uniforms, they obviously weren’t getting their hands dirty. Maybe they are doing some good, though. We’ll see.
It took me an hour to get to my office, and in that time I saw:
A broken bridge
A hundred people shoveling mud out of their front door
Several cars stuck in mudholes, some so deep only the roof was protruding
1 old man on a scooter slip on the mud and eat shit on a curve – the mud also saved him by padding his fall
A fleet of pump-mounted trucks draining the graveyard, which is very unfortunately shaped like a bowl
Two vans that had tipped over and fallen into a flooded rice paddy
A meter-thick stone pillar snapped in half by god knows what and laying across the road
A yellow 350Z being fished from the river
An empty showroom at the Nissan dealer (makes you wonder doesn’t it?)
One of my coworkers was hit hard last night. His house is apparently “buried” in mud. I am proud of my company today because they sent most of the people from my office, including our section manager, to help him out. I wonder if this is standard practice or not. Either way, I’m proud they are taking care of their own in this case.

Riding the Big Lizard (Typhoon Tokage)

So typhoon Tokage (lizard) almost washed me and my poor car away (liveblogging posts are on my sidebar today; here is the permanent link), but after 2 hours of endless waiting at flooded intersections and negotiating some gnarly mudslides, I have gotten home safely. Unfortunately, not everyone was as fortunate, so I helped push one car out of a ditch and gave someone else a ride to their car.
I can’t believe they turned us out of the office just in time to face such heinous weather and road conditions. “Why did we have work today at all?,” was a common complaint overheard in the moments after the announcement to go home. Those people will really have a bone to pick tomorrow, I’m sure. As for me, I’m just happy I got back home and out of the rain. I’m gonna call some coworkers and see if they got back okay.