'It Was Like the Sky Was Falling In'
Asia: Torrential rains in Vietnam sweep away lives as well as livelihoods.
KIM LIEN, Vietnam--"The mountain came down at 2 in the morning," recalled Dinh Thi
Danh, who lives in this village in central Vietnam. "It was Bam! Bam!
Bam!--like the sky was falling in or the Americans were bombing. My shop
just disappeared. If I'd been in it, I'd be dead now."
Tumbling boulders had torn through the bamboo hut where she sold soft
drinks and cigarettes.
"This is my only property now," she said, lifting rocks to salvage
what she could and filling a plastic basket with empty cola bottles and
Comparable scenes were repeated throughout this region Sunday, as one
of its great floods of the century rampaged, turning towns and villages
into inaccessible islands and severing the rail line and main national
highway that link Hanoi with Ho Chi Minh City.
Officials said a weeklong deluge of rain had claimed more than 450
lives--mostly in and around the old imperial city of Hue--destroyed 116
bridges and washed 6,700 houses out to sea. The International Committee
of the Red Cross appealed for help, saying upward of 1 million people
were in need of food, medicine and blankets.
"This is the flood of the century, a real catastrophe," said Marshall
Silver of the United Nations' Disaster Management Unit in Hanoi. "Unlike
with a typhoon, there was no warning. Just heavy rain, then floods
roaring out of the mountains."
The Perfume River in Hue crested 3 feet higher than previously
recorded and left the city--the site of one of the biggest battles of the
Vietnam War, in 1968--under 6 feet of water. The airport was closed, and
relief workers delivered emergency food by boat.
In nearby Hoa Phu, 17 people were killed when raging currents uprooted
a house and carried it down a mountainside. Around Da Nang, in Kim Lien
village and other hamlets, 31 people had drowned and 14 remained
unaccounted for. In Hoi An, a popular tourist town south of Da Nang, tour
guide Tran Quoc Cong put his group in a rowboat and pulled it through the
"I haven't seen a flood like this since 1964," Cong said. "I was just
a little boy then, but I remember helicopters had to bring us food. They
were American helicopters flown by American advisors. Times change."
Most international relief agencies praised the government's quick
response to the crisis. With the army mobilized for the first time during
a natural disaster, emergency food and medicine were being delivered by
helicopter even before the rivers crested, and government ministers were
on the scene, making recovery plans and providing funds to those who had
lost their homes.
Central Vietnam is no stranger to typhoons and floods--the flood in
1964 killed 10,000 people--and the tropical depression that pushed inland
last Monday from the South China Sea seemed neither unusual nor
But it met a cold front coming down from China and stalled over
Highway 1, the main north-south thoroughfare linking Vietnam's two major
cities. In some areas, 40 inches of rain fell in four days. The land
became a saturated sponge that could absorb no more water. Rivers
overflowed their banks, and mountain streams turned into cascading
The areas around Da Nang and Hue are similar to the Los Angeles Basin,
enclosed between mountains and the sea. But unlike in the Santa Monica
Mountains, the water that flows out of the Truong Son range encounters
few flood controls, and everything in its path is imperiled.
On the 1,500-foot-high Hai Van Pass between Da Nang and Hue, Highway 1
was cut by landslides in 30 places. Two of the nine tunnels between the
two cities were blocked by silt, and service was suspended on the seven
daily trains between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon.
"We've been here working around the clock for five days," Trinh Huong
said Sunday as his bulldozer pushed mud, boulders and uprooted trees over
a cliff and into the sea. "The company sends up instant noodles, and we
sleep in the culvert."
The rain in central Vietnam on Sunday was no more than a drizzle. The
Perfume and other rivers appeared to have crested. Relief workers in
boats and helicopters pushed into localities outside Da Nang and Hue to
assess emergency needs and the huge cleanup task that lies ahead.
"Maybe now we can be on our way before long," said Mien Van Lan, one
of 300 people who had lived for a week at the Da Nang train station,
eating three meals a day supplied by railroad officials.
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