Sunday, November 6, 2011

An island of defiance rises from the waters

Bangkok Post

With floods driving residents from his Nonthaburi estate, 'Bangkok Post' photographer Jetjaras Na Ranong made the tough decision to stay and try and save his home. This is a first-person account of his travails and triumphs

Day 13 started just like the previous day. I open my eyes at dawn, as the first rays of the sun peek through my window. I stumble to the coffeemaker, and carefully measure out a single cup of water. Mug in hand, I walk down the hall to peer down the stairs to the first floor.
TROOPS AGAINST THE TIDE: From left, Dr Aditep Pana, Panyo Sudyoddi, Soontorn Kamkajorn and Nattarat Pana. PHOTOS: JETJARAS NA RANONG
The water is still rising. Sigh.

I drink my coffee in measured sips. No room for waste _ potable water is as scarce as gold, ever since last week, when I noticed that the water from my filter system was brown and tainted with oily fumes. Once finished, I spoon some water into another cup to brush my teeth.

No need to shower. I'll be in the water soon enough.

My ear itches. It's the water. You can't avoid it. Even if you stay dry, you aren't really dry.
Two weeks ago, when the floodwaters first came, they were as clear as crystal. You could see every detail on the roads, the blades of grass on the lawns, even the patterns on some newly liberated carp fish that escaped from a neighbour's pond.

Now the water is jet black, a miasma of oily swirls, rubbish and debris, all stinking of rot.
But it's still home.

I glance at my cars, their hoods hastily wrapped with plastic that has done little to protect the insides. More money gone.

There was no real time to evacuate. The directors of my community, the Ratirom Park development in Bang Kruai, Nonthaburi, gave us only an hour's warning before the waters first came on Oct 23.

''Hurry, hurry. You have an hour. Anyone who hasn't moved their cars, must do so now! We're going to seal the roads with sandbags,'' they announced.

There was no time. I had only just returned home from an upcountry assignment. My first thought was to get my children, six and four, to safety. As we left the estate, I could see the first signs of the flood.

The next day, I came back alone to see what I could do to protect my house. I threw some plastic over the cars, moved some furniture upstairs and began looking for sandbags. The day passed in a blur. I left my three cars in the garage.

How bad could it be? In early October, the development manager met with the homeowners and explained the measures that were being taken to protect the community. It seemed enough: a two-metre perimeter of sandbags and rock would surround the estate. The sewage system would be sealed, and two big pumps were brought in to deal with any seepage.
It wasn't enough. Not even close. My home, one of the first built in the development, was the first to be hit, as pressure from the floodwaters outside forced water to seep into the estate.

My neighbours and I ran around incessantly to plug what holes we could with dirt and sandbags. But for every hole plugged two more sprouted elsewhere.

The exodus began. Some left on navy rowboats or army trucks. Others paddled out on giant inner tubes. Some just waded in and walked out.

I wasn't leaving. Call it ignorance. In my 41 years, flooding to me has always meant large puddles of water scattered along the roadway. I moved in only four months before. I wasn't going to leave now. Who could have imagined that my home, my community, my city could become a giant swamp in so little time?

That was two weeks ago. An eternity. I wade out to the clubhouse next door, where our little band of brothers come to congregate each day. No one wants to stay alone in their deserted house, surrounded by black water and dark thoughts.

There are nine of us, including myself, who stand vigil over the estate. Four are Cambodians working as guards for the estate, all very solid, tough men. The other four are my neighbours, who for their own reasons volunteered to stay behind and keep guard over our little community.

We all take turns making the rounds, to help guard our cars, our belongings and our homes from bandits. We are armed with only radios, knives and homemade air guns. At first, we patrolled on foot, wading in the water up and down the streets. Later, we received some boats as donations, easing the task.

At the front of the estate, we placed a sign saying ''Beware of electrical shocks'' to help ward off criminals. I remember we debated the wisdom of the sign. What if the thieves were foreigners who couldn't read Thai? Or if some good Samaritan sees the sign and calls the electricity company to cut power to the estate? That would be the end of our stay. We can survive the putrid water, the snakes, mosquitoes and centipedes, the dirt and the grime. But we need power to run the pumps used to prevent the water from reaching the second floors of our homes, to run our electrical appliances and cooking gear and to power our telephones and connections with the outer world.

My four neighbours are now family. We're all quite close in age, albeit from wildly different backgrounds and careers.
Ton and Fong, for instance, are both 37-year-old civil servants armed with a doctorate and master's degree respectively in Buddhism studies. Ton, or Dr Aditep Pana, maintains the kitchen, helps lift our spirits with his guitar and boasts a sharp tongue but a kind heart. His wife Fong, or Nattarat, is quick to laugh and has never lost her sense of optimism, even when the nights are darkest.

Soontorn Kamkajorn, or Boy, is the youngest of the five at 35. A graduate of King Mongkut's University of Technology North Bangkok, Boy not only maintains our IT systems and the kitchens, he also helped design our gas-powered guns and keeps our spirits high with his jokes. The eldest at 43, Panyo Sudyoddi, or Yo, sells khao moo dang (roasted pork and rice) for a living but now carries out his duty as a community director to help protect what's left of our homes.

Our meals are simple, comprised of rice and fried eggs, or sometimes instant noodles with a bit of pork or canned fish. Much of it is food donated by other families living in the estate, who give what they can spare. Sometimes it's the other way around, where we take the rowboats out to deliver food and water to the four other families who have also refused to leave their homes.

Most of our time is spent together in the clubhouse, chatting away the hours. If nothing else, the floods have given me four new friends. We've been together day-in, day-out for two weeks, united in our shared commitment to safeguard our homes and community.

But the sacrifice and suffering has been real, painful and deep. Our camaraderie only bandages our wounds, which are opened anew each time we part to make our trek back through the water to our homes.

It's dark inside. I quickly wash my legs, wipe off the gunk and grime and sprinkle foot powder generously on my toes to ward off rashes. It's only 9pm. Most nights, it will be several long hours before I finally drift off asleep amid the oppressive quiet of the water surrounding me. After a fitful, restless night, the day starts anew.
Day 14.
some Bang Kruai residents left their flooded homes behind on boats, trucks and inner tubes.
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