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A concrete slab where their homes used to be

The day starts with some coffee, fried eggs and some fresh bread in a dusty roadside café. I can be happy anywhere with that combination.

We’re in Quang Tri province after a long drive from Da Nang last night. We meet the assessment team that’s been out in the flooded areas and high mountain valleys for the last three days. I meet Nghia and Gia, two colleagues usually based in Hanoi. They’re looking a bit tired but we’re pleased to see each other and compare notes. There’s a good team spirit here with Red Cross, Government and humanitarian agencies like Save the Children all working together in tough circumstances.

We have a meeting with the government who feed back their data on the province and show us some video footage of the floods. As of last night 19,000 households are still cut off in lowland coastal plain. They have limited food and efforts are being made to get them emergency rations by boat. A lot of them are camped out in upper floors of some of the bigger and more solid schools and public buildings. The flood water is going down but is still up to eight metres in some places near the sea.

A man in one of the local search and rescue teams was killed yesterday. He drowned whilst trying to rescue an old lady who was trapped on her corrugated iron roof. He died trying to help someone.

In the afternoon we travel into the mountains, towards the border with Laos. We’ve heard reports of some bad destruction due to flash flooding in some of the valleys. We quickly organize a truck and load it with some household relief packages. It will accompany us and the local red cross will help us make sure it gets to the most needy families.

We start the journey. It’s a beautiful area. The mountains are high, steep and forested and cut by some very wide and fast rivers. As the valley starts to narrow we notice a strip of bare mud and soil extending about 7 or 8 metres up the valley sides above the river. This is where the flash flood has scoured the valley. It must have carried an awesome force. This flood came at midnight on Wednesday 30th September, over 24 hours after Typhoon Ketsana made landfall further south.

We reach a school. It’s called Ta Long Huc Nghi. Stretched out along the main road outside the gates are school books being left out to dry in the sun. We look into the main courtyard. It’s been blasted. People are everywhere trying to clean up. The building still stands but it’s been completely stripped down by the flash flood. A thick layer of mud lies everywhere. I see the remains of equipment from a science class. A model duck, beheaded. A leg from a demonstration plastic skeleton. A test tube rack. A small plastic stool is perched in a tall palm tree about 6m above ground level showing how high the water came. This school will open again but we don’t know when.

We continue up the valley and the road becomes more difficult. It’s quite a new road that clings to the side of a steep hillside. There have been several landslips since the deluge but now the rain has stopped it is safe to pass and local people are working hard to clear the way. You couldn’t get this far yesterday unless you went on foot.

The next 20km takes over an hour and we continue to see evidence of the force of a flood that has flattened everything in its path. I remember seeing a TV programme when I was young showing them build the trans-amazonian highway in Brazil. They took bulldozers and cleared a 500m-wide strip of red mud through the jungle. That’s what it looks like here.

We reach an area called Ta Rut commune. Look to your left and you see a mountain town with a few shops and houses. It looks normal enough. Look to your right towards the river and there’s nothing left. A barren waste of brown mud. A couple of buildings still stand. Half of the village has gone.

As we get closer we see people standing around in groups. Families stand or sit on the small concrete slabs that used to support their homes. It’s as if they don’t want to leave yet, finding it hard to believe what has happened.

Some of them have managed to salvage some timber. We talk to a family with five children. They tell us that the flood came at midnight but they could see the water level rising quickly so they managed to get everyone up the hillside. No body died in this village. It’s a miracle.

These people need emergency support as quickly as possible. They have no shelter, no food, the environment is dirty and they don’t have clean water. Just the clothes on their back and a concrete slab where their home used to be.

We distribute the aid we could bring with us. 50 packages to those who lost their house, female-headed households or those with very young children. It’s a start but this is going to be a big job. The children are playing around us, messing around, laughing, looking through the colourful new buckets and water containers their parents received.

A clinic. The nurse says diarrhea, malaria and ARI has risen since the flood. Their running out of medicines. They want our help.

A kindergarten. It’s a Save the Children project site. The sign at the entrance says “children have a right to education” in Vietnamese. The picture shows a cartoon of children playing, having fun. We walk through the gates. Mud.  Fallen trees and debris. Books drying. Chickens pecking at rotting fruit. The back wall of the classroom has been blasted off by the flood. The blackboard still intact on one of the walls.

Another school by the roadside. Nguyet, one of our local staff who knows the area well, tells me that it used to be the most beautiful school in the district, perched up on a hillside with a panorama of the river valley. Now it has one wall left. The front entrance. Like the buildings in the film, blazing saddles.

We’re up until late working with the local officials and our team to figure out how many more places are like Ta Rut commune. There are still places we cannot get to. We need to establish how much and what kind of emergency relief we need to deliver over the coming days and weeks. We have 2000 more household kits like the ones we gave today ready to go. But we need food and more hygiene items like soap and water purification tabs. The team in Hanoi has jumped into action to get this moving.

I spent the last few days on the coast where the typhoon first hit Vietnam. It didn’t prepare me for this. These places are now our number one priority.

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