Vietnam in the aftermath of Ketsana

DANANG, Vietnam — "Attention passengers. This is your captain speaking. We’re starting our descent into Danang, with heavy winds and rain. Things could get bumpy. As always, we thank you for flying with us."

Oops! They forgot to mention we’re landing in a typhoon. Of course, the news was spreading since we took off, but the cabin crew managed to feign cluelessness with their Barbie-doll smiles. What typhoon? You mean that drizzle out there? Ha!

The government had evacuated three nearby provinces, and on Monday afternoon the winds were already ripping through our village on China Beach, about 15 miles south of urban Danang. But on the ground, the locals didn’t seem to care much either. “Yes, just another storm, no worry,” laughed one motorbike repairman as he sluggishly nailed wood to his window. “Ah, storm. We in central Vietnam have many storm,” a sculpture merchant boasted. “Store still open.”

Indeed, with its long coastline and extensive river deltas, Vietnam is one of the countries most affected by natural disasters. Six to eight typhoons smack Vietnam each year on average and this year looks to be no different — except that the region has learned from past disasters and relief efforts are improving.

Boom! A sound jolted me awake in the wee morning hours of Tuesday — a tree had fallen outside my room and shattered a window. The guest house owner burst into my room. “We go downstairs now!” he shouted. Typhoon Ketsana had arrived.

Outside winds rip-roared through the alleyways, catapulting metal scraps dangerously close to my body. When the sun rose, I could better make out tree trunks and roofs littered around the roads, and the aluminum huts that had collapsed across the village. Ketsana continued through the day, peaking between 2 and 4 p.m.

The damage was staggering, but Ketsana affected our area lightly compared to the nearby areas. Hoi An, a small town 25 miles away from my area, was flooded up to my shoulders, with some houses completely submerged. In the central highland provinces of Quang Ngai and Quang Nam, relief workers reported entire villages were cut off due to the floods and tree trunks obstructing roads.

World Vision, a Christian aid organization, said in a statement on Wednesday that more than 5,800 houses had collapsed and 163,000 houses lost their roofs. The organization distributed 1,000 food aid packs to 5,000 people this week, but had difficulty reaching areas isolated by 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.”