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Vietnam in the aftermath of Ketsana

Relief efforts are improving in central Vietnam, which has long been afflicted by catastrophic floods.

As of Friday, typhoon Ketsana had left 99 people dead in Vietnam with another 14 missing, mostly in the hardest-hit central provinces of Quang Nam, Thua Tien Hue and Quang Tri. In nearby Laos and northern Cambodia, 17 and 16 people were reported dead, respectively. In the Philippines 300 people died, a number that spiked after the “super-typhoon” Parma hit on Saturday. Parma struck the remote northeastern Philippines, killing at least five people and forcing more than 130,000 along the eastern seaboard to flee their homes. 

Catastrophic floods have long afflicted central Vietnam, with typhoons becoming more powerful and recurring more in recent years, according to a report published last year by the United Nations Development Program. The most devastating recent floods came in 1999 when 750 people were reported dead or missing. The region is fraught with a nightmarish, remote geography that in previous years has hampered relief efforts.

Yet despite this year’s wreckage, NGOs are touting the success of the relief efforts, which owe much to the lessons of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Indonesia, which left 230,000 people dead. Le Van Duong, a relief coordinator for World Vision, said food relief and staff are now pre-positioned in disaster-prone areas, rather than being transported to the areas every time disaster strikes. “The local capacity to take care of disasters has quite improved, and relief is done better than in the past,” he said.

That’s not to mention the speedy evacuation before Ketsana hit, a move that possibly saved thousands of lives. Local media reported that on Monday the government dispatched five helicopters, and a fleet of cars and boats, to evacuate 350,000 people from the three most vulnerable provinces.

“The planning, and the number of people evacuated, is what really prevented so many deaths,” said Huynh Duc Truong, head of the Danang Union of Friendship Organization, a Vietnamese NGO that is helping to coordinate a reconstruction plan for Danang. “This is remarkable even with the limited resources of the local government and the local NGOs.”

Yet with officials broadcasting their gloom and doom warnings, I still can’t figure out how the locals were so nonchalant about the situation before Ketsana hit.

Maybe it’s just life. “Every year in central Vietnam we’ve suffered from horrible things — famine, droughts, floods, storms and war” said Huynh Thi Kem, 53, referring to the French and American wars that rocked central Vietnam earlier this century. “Death is a part of our lives every day. We are poor, and when we hear about storms, we still have to keep up with our daily lives or we starve.” During the storm, her aluminum hut collapsed, leaving her homeless for two days.

For Huynh, relief is just one part of the picture. “The NGOs always rebuild our villages only to have them destroyed again in five years. I don’t think any amount of aid can stop the suffering,” she said. “But I feel it’s getting better. Ten years ago, the government only gave me two bowls of noodles after every disaster. Now, they give me almost enough to rebuild my home.”