Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Coming together for flood relief efforts

It has been a challenging and emotionally-draining two weeks for Malaysia. 

There was so much I initially wanted to write about in my blog -- going ice-skating with Serina, doing a Christmas food distribution run with Reach Out Malaysia complete with Santa hats, trying out new foods and visiting new places, Christmas lunch with Aravind and Nicole, all our new volunteer projects and stray cat rescues. And then two tragedies struck which jolted our country out of our holiday mood -- the Air Asia Indonesia air disaster, and the floods which devastated much of the East Coast and rendered thousands of people homeless

Floods are an annual occurrence in the coastal regions of Malaysia during the year-end monsoon season. Perhaps that was why we didn't react with surprise when we first heard about it. We knew that precautions had to be taken, but we didn't see it as a cause for alarm yet. In my childhood, I had spent most of my year-end school holidays with family in the East Coast. I had seen how our relatives who lived in the villages secure their belongings to the beams of the roof when the water starts to rise. We have stood at the balcony of my grandmother's little apartment and watched the rising floodwaters swirl and eddy as they meet the sea, often taking tables, chairs, bicycles and miscellaneous items out to sea with them. We viewed the forces of Nature as something to be respected, not feared. We had never faced monsoon floods of such magnitude, and were quite unprepared for the destruction it wreaked this year. 

By Christmas Day, news starting coming in rapidly via social media of flood casualties and humans and animals rendered homeless. The government refused to declare an emergency and hummed and hawed as people suffered. Volunteer groups on Facebook started to mobilise donors and friends to collect emergency supplies and arrange for helicopters, boats and 4x4s to deliver flood relief supplies to the stranded and in need. Phone calls were made, emails were sent out, facebook appeals were shared. 

I had assisted in tsunami relief and flood relief efforts in the past, and issued a reminder on my Facebook status to ensure that volunteers came appropriately dressed for physical labour and prepared with gloves, drinking water, garbage bags, packing tape, packing boxes and permanent markers. 

By 26th and 27th December many of my friends and I had organised ourselves into groups to assist in relief and aid efforts in community centres and shopping malls closest to our homes. I had initially planned to assist in the community hall in Bandar Utama, but received a call on Saturday morning informing me that there was a wedding going on in the hall and it would not be reopened for relief work until after 6 p.m. 

I spent half the day attending to vet appointments and helping out at the SPCA shelter as usual before arming myself with packing tape, boxes and other materials to go to the Al-Ikhlas Mosque in SS3 to assist with the volunteer efforts to pack and transport emergency relief supplies and medicines. We arrived to find that the volunteers did not have sufficient small and sturdy cardboard boxes to pack medication (e.g. paracetamol, diarrhoea medication, activated carbon pills etc) in, and so Aravind and I went out again to source for more boxes. We approached two bookstores and a mini-market that I am a regular customer of and was bitterly disappointed when the storekeepers would not part with their cardboard boxes because they claimed that they had promised them to some paper recycling companies. Through gritted teeth, I told them that the flattened boxes would be worth only a few cents to them, but could mean the difference between the medicines arriving tonight or 1-2 days later to the flood victims. As we were turning to leave each shop, the shopkeepers, probably overcome by feelings of guilt, told us they could spare us a few boxes. With relief, we selected several small, sturdy boxes that we could fit boxes of pharmaceutical products in, thanked the shopkeepers and returned to the mosque. 

Soon more volunteers began to trickle in, some fresh from dinner or other weekend activities. The most heartwarming thing about it was that the volunteers were of all different faiths and ethnicities and they were determined to help even though many felt out of place as it was their first time in a mosque. The mosque committee rendered us their cooperation, although I suspect they would normally have frowned upon the presence of girls in shorts and jeans within the mosque premises. But we were here to help, not to discuss fashion and the length of shorts and skirts, and we got to work immediately, in orderly rows, to sort donated items. 

We packed the sanitary pads and diapers into strong garbage bags according to size and labelled each bag using masking tape and permanent marker to expedite the distribution process. 

We packed canned food, milk powder, baby formula, biscuits, instant beverages and instant noodles into boxes according to type and sealed and labelled each box to ensure they reached their destination safe and sound and could be identified and distributed easily. 

We stacked sacks of rice according to size so they could go straight into the trucks later. 

The flood victims were currently in evacuation centres, most of them without personal care or hygiene products, and so we packed hotel soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste into packs for each family for easier and faster distribution. 

A Good Samaritan had managed to wheedle over 300 large plastic ice cream tubs from an ice-cream vending company and we washed and dried the tubs to put sensitive medical equipment and supplies in. Volunteers went out to purchase pharmaceutical products using money donated by kindhearted citizens, according to lists provided by volunteer doctors and nurses who would be going on emergency missions to assist the flood victims. I dried the washed tubs as quickly and thoroughly as I could, and handed them to volunteers working in rows to fill them with tablets for common ailments, cough syrups, oral rehydration salts, and First Aid supplies. Aravind and another volunteer hurriedly listed the contents of each tub to be pasted on the top of the tub so the medical personnel could tell immediately if what they needed was in a particular tub. Boxes of bandages, paracetamol and cough medicine went into smallish cardboard boxes to be transported together with the volunteer doctors via helicopter the following morning. We worked like well-oiled machinery that night. 

The friendly mosque cat wanted to know what we were doing so I took a short break to cuddle him. 

The first trailer pulled up into the mosque compound before midnight and we formed a human chain to move the boxes and packages out of the mosque hall and into the trailer. It was heartwarming to see the determined faces of volunteers of every faith and ethnicity, working hard to ease the suffering of their fellow men. 

I know that many of them felt the way I did -- we wish we could do more, give more. We wish we could be there on the ground, rescuing people and animals, helping to look for missing persons, transporting people to safer places, attending to the ill and injured, helping in the cleaning up and rebuilding efforts. But we could not, not with our work and family commitments, not with our limited resources, not with our lack of emergency response skills that would make us liabilities, not assets, in a disaster zone. 

So we did what we could, and gave what we could afford. All over the country, kind and generous people scraped together what they could to help others in greater need and put in effort to help others. Strong and healthy friends donated blood to help flood victims that were airlifted to the hospitals. Many others helped with the packing and sorting and transporting, just as we had. Even children and senior citizens who could not lift heavy items helped out in aid collection centres by packing hygiene packs and school supplies. Some others washed and dried donated clothes and blankets so that the recipients would have clean and fragrant clothes to sleep in. Friends with 4x4 vehicles and pickup trucks and access to helicopters and boats took time off work to deliver much-needed aid and medical assistance to flood victims, especially the indigenous communities, who were cut off without food or clean drinking water in their villages with no means of getting to the evacuation and relief centres. 

Caring individuals set up small animal rescue operations to rescue stranded and injured animals and distribute pet food to animal guardians who manage to flee their homes with their companion animals. The SPCA came onto the scene late (as usual!) but managed to work together with Petfinder and another rescue group to set up satellite centres in each affected state where rescued animals could be given temporary shelter until their humans came to take them home. Those who are not claimed by their humans would be neutered and put up for adoption. With the assistance of the Department of Veterinary Services, each satellite centre would also actively carry out neutering and vaccination to prevent unwanted animal births and illnesses which could further make things worse in areas that are already economically crippled by the floods. 

(Photo credits: Kelvin Cheah, SPCA Selangor and independent rescuer, Muhammad Razeef. Not to be shared without permission) 

Our friend Alison worked with a 4x4 elite response team and the Coalition of Orang Asal (Indigenous Communities) Concerns to deliver relief supplies to the villages deep in the jungles that are cut off and unable to receive government aid. 

When we heard about what their group was doing, we again dug deep into our pockets to buy food and emergency supplies for the communities. I managed to persuade my parents and Covert Twin to donate to this cause as well, and combined with some money received from other friends -- Amanda, Angie Yong and Ee Phin -- managed to purchase and deliver over 2 shopping carts full of food and supplies to them. 

Photos were taken of the mission to let us know that our food aid has reached the intended beneficiaries. 

(Photo credits: Alison Sandra Murugesu, Larry Lee and Rob Armstrong. Not to be shared without permission) 

The worst floods in the country brought out the best in Malaysians. 

In times of grave hardship and need, we cast our differences aside and worked as one to reduce the suffering of others, working more efficiently and quickly than governmental agencies. Still, we know that the floods will only get worse every year if efforts are not made by those in power to halt deforestation and take immediate flood mitigation and stormwater management measures. Environmental groups have been warning of the dangers of deforestation and monocrop plantations (oil palm does not have the ability to absorb and slowly release water the way a diverse range of rainforest trees would) for years, but nobody listened, and now among the poorest and most vulnerable of our citizens have to suffer due to the greed and arrogance of those in a decision-making capacity. 

The worst floods in the history of Malaysia taught us many lessons. It taught, and continues to teach, us about the environmental cost of unplanned and unregulated development and deforestation, the need to have proper drainage and irrigation systems and permeable surfaces, the importance of watersheds and water catchment areas, and the need to manage resources wisely. 

But looking at the number of individuals who stepped forward to contribute, I also realise that this disaster taught us that we are more alike than we are different, that we can count on one another in times of need, that no matter what our faith, ethnicity, social class or political persuasion, we won't let each other suffer, and that together, we are strong. 

My country, Tanah Tumpahnya Darahku, I love you more in your time of need than I ever have, for it is in your most vulnerable moments that I see your strength.

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