I’m a native of Bangkok, also known as the ‘city of angels’. Those from outside of Bangkok in Thailand like to satirise the name, as they consider us precious, haughty and snobbish. However, the cataclysmic flooding we experienced last year proved one absolute truth: for the entire 12-million metropolitan population of the city, natural disasters do not discriminate victims by their socio-economic status or GDP: peasants and angels face an equal opportunity to be swamped.
I started to realise the seriousness of the flooding when it advanced past the flood-defensive industrial zone in Ayudhaya - the historical town north of Bangkok. The photos of over two hundred new cars drowning in the Rojana Industrial Zone caught everyone’s attention, followed by news about other industrial areas on the way down to the capital being inundated one by one. The water height rose up to 3.5 metres in certain areas within few hours, and we were warned by the government’s scientists and experts that ten billion cubic metres of flood water was threatening to swamp our homes.
Exactly how much was ten billion cubic metres of flood water? I had no clue at all!
Specialised terminology was frequently thrown around during that time, giving no clarification to those from a non-scientific background. This left us to wonder whether this flood water would swamp our house, when it might happen, how high it might be, for how long it would stay, and most importantly, what should we do?
Failing to protect industrial vicinities, authorities were too busy re-strategising their defensive plan to save the capital as a last-ditch effort. The new government was struggling to deliver unified messages, the opposition parties focused excessively on digging out corruption in the disbursement of donated supplies and looked for chance to condemn the ruling ones, and the mainstream media was busy reporting on all of this. Everyone had forgotten to educate and to inform the common public.
I then turned to social media and social networking tools, starting from checking all my Thai Facebook, BBM and WhatApps friends for their dry-status update to share information, pictures and experience of the evacuees who were searching for temporary shelters downtown. To my surprise, many of my friends were already flood victims as the water reached the outskirts of Bangkok the week after it had hit Ayudhaya.
In the meantime, conflicting information was released by the Flood Relief Operations Command (FROC) and Bangkok Governor who was from the opposition party over the destiny of Bangkok.
A small group of clear-minded Thai animators from Roo Su Flood (Fighting Flood with Knowledge) saved the day by creating informative Youtube animations about fifty-million cute blue whales (as metaphor for flood water) from the North wanting to get home - to the sea - but the traffic was very bad so they had to stay on the roads and in our houses. The popularity of the whale animations spread like wildfire virtually overnight, and provided a vital understanding of just how large were the coming ten billion cubic metres of flood water. We shared the whale clips over Facebook and looked forward to the release of new episodes every night. The whale stories consisted of various episodes educating people how to prepare for and deal with the flood, delivering useful tips in an “edu-taining” and easy-to-digest voice.
I saw the country’s satellite floodway maps and realised that if the flood was to hit the entire capital starting from the outskirts, my house would be the last place for the blue whales to visit as I lived in the innermost part of city. But another fact was that my house was near the main river, Chao Phra Ya, which made me reconsider various evacuation possibilities since the river levels might increase anytime and all of Bangkok’s flood-waters were being emptied via underground channels into the river.
By this time, people in Bankok were already in intense panic. People parked their cars at high rise buildings, on expressways and bridges, blocking traffic and causing accidents. Many ended up evacuating without any survival gear and clothes, losing everything during the flood.
Via social media, I listened to daily flood analysis by private scholars and NGOs released on YouTube and read their fanpages. I downloaded several applications developed by private engineers to self-evaluate my home’s situation like how the height of my house above sea level affected the chances of it surviving. To be honest, I was not quite sure that I understood the impact of this measurement clearly, as the given information was too technically involved and inaccurate in the case of many houses that had undergone renovation.
The worst-case scenario for us meant that we would be under three metres of water measured by ‘intelligent’ foresight mobile apps. My father ordered us to pack at midnight, not knowing that I had packed two separate survival bags two weeks before he was alerted as the news over social media was faster than over the mainstream one.
I had come up with three plans.
Plan A: I would leave one survival bag inside my car and park it at a high-rise building next to the Skytrain in the heart of the city, so that when the flood water came, I could take the Skytrain to get to my car and drive to the motorway directly out of the capital within twenty minutes.
Plan B: I would leave another bag inside another off-road car parked at home for an emergency escape.
Plan C: I would stock up on all supplies, sandbags and water-defensive gear at home, and ensure that our internal drainage system was closed-off from outside water and our toilets and bathrooms on the second floor upwards would be functional even when surrounded by flood water, in case my parents refused to leave—which they eventually did. Most people of the older generation preferred plan C. In any case, I found and read the ‘how-to-convince-your-parents-to-leave-home’ step-by-step guide over Facebook with little hope of success in reality.
The whales had not yet arrived at our home, so we waited and waited while flood information scared us more and more. More people from the outskirts either retreated to the inner city or ran away to the nearby dry provinces. Pattaya was jammed, Hua Hin overcrowded.
For people who remained in town like me, we lacked drinking water and instant food at the supermarkets was all sold out. The government told us not to panic, but its own FROC office was inundated and its officers sought urgent evacuation.
Civic networks over social media played crucial roles in gathering real-time flood updates from residents in the area, coordinating people in rescues and evacuations. While waiting for the whales, I was browsing updates very frequently and looking for flood relief volunteer work to relieve my guilt for remaining dry while many people lost their houses and belongings to the flood.
My family had another house in the suburbs of Bangkok and it was flooded already. My cousins who lived nearby owned a factory which was under two metres of water by then. It was through text messaging that I heard the ‘horror story’ of my cousin witnessing the water come not crashing through the gates but rapidly welling-up out of the concrete floor.
We remained in town and lived in fear all this while, planned and re-planned for evacuation, but the whales never arrived.
As a Bangkokkian, poor information management and non-clarification of the situation put me under a tremendous amount of stress, and proved to be even worse than being completely ignorant of the situation.
As intimidating as social media can be in its outreach and openess, it proved immensely useful during the flood. For people in today’s chaotic urban environments, information management and optimising the use of social media networks—especially on part of the government—can have a vital impact on society.
I hope we have learnt a lot from the visit of the blue whales and we should be in a better position in the event of another crisis.
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