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The 1998 Flood10 Sep 1998 by Sara Bennett
Ah, the flood. Every day the water rises a few more inches. Dhaka is a mood swing draped over the cityscape. On one side of the road, shops waist-deep in water. And a Bangladeshi wading through it all, smiling - a kind of visual metaphor for Bangladeshi forebearance. On the other, higher side of the road, there is normality. Of a sort - the carpenter shops are building boats and each bit of unflooded space is warmly contested.
Dhaka is a city awash in stories, rumors, anxiety. The state of the Dhaka embankment. The level of the rivers outside. Even some "posh" homes have half a meter of water inside. To some, this latter statement is absurd (the water doesn't care whether a home is "posh" or not). To others, it helps to convey the extent and seriousness of the situation.
Away or at home, everyone without exception must cope with the floods. By moving out of a flooded house. By taking a boat from the front door and down the flooded street. By donating money or supplies for flood relief. By driving the long way around because the water is just too deep the other way. Or by simply listening to friends relate their own feelings and experiences.
"How bad is it?" is everybody's question. Well, it depends where you look, where you live, who you know, who you care about, whether you are home or out somewhere trying to get home... and how nervous you are. And if it's OK where you are right now ... that can change.
The atmosphere at worship services is heavy. Everyone is praying for the Bangladeshi villages and for the urban poor who are suffering desperately. All know that when the water recedes, many will be weakened and vulnerable to epidemic disease -- typhoid, hepatitis, cholera, and others. Many will suffer, be damaged, and die. Charitable giving by many organizations and individuals is already well over annual budgets. It seems everywhere one goes there is a basket for cash donations or a box for donated clothes and food.
Travel in the rural areas is exceptionally precarious. Trips for any other purpose than flood relief should probably be postponed. Even if you can get there, can you get back? I heard two stories of uneventful outward travel followed by harrowing return trips. In the first, the travelers chose to return by boat rather than backtrack to the airport. On the way their boat rammed another boat, tossing a number of passengers into the water. Indeed the rivers are thick with boats these days, and the pilots are at least as reckless as the drivers on the roads.
In the second story, the dry road on the way out was blocked by an accident on the way back. So the travelers went around the blockage on village roads, following another driver claiming local knowledge. After a few kilometers, the village road disappeared under water, and the little convoy proceeded across an unbroken sheet of water, behind a passenger, pants rolled up, finding the road on foot. (Anyone who has driven on village roads that are merely wet can easily imagine how hair-raising this would be.)
But let's thank God even this disaster can have a lighter side, and let's get what comfort we can from it. The hardy Dutch have put a small embankment and pumped drainage at the Dutch club -- of course, eh? Like beavers building dams on a stream in a beech forest, they probably couldn't stop themselves from building a polder in a flood even if they wanted to. And, how about this new unit of measure: "as deep as a rickshaw wheel"?
My own contribution to comic relief came while I was driving to church last Friday morning. I got halfway across the bridge from Gulshan to Mohakhali in our sedan and then chickened out -- ahead there was water up over the axles of field vehicles and no other sedans in sight. The only way out was to go in reverse against the traffic, all the way back to high ground. I provided considerable amusement to a large number of Bangladeshi spectators (and fellow church goers), fortunately without causing a riot!