Nor Syaima Rozman was spending a quiet Saturday at home with her family when water from the nearby Sungai Klang began to overflow due to the rain that had been falling steadily all day.
By 6pm, the water level in her house had reached knee level. She and her family rushed to pack some basic necessities and clothing before moving to a neighbour’s house further uphill.
But by 8pm, the flood waters had reached that house too.
“We moved out to a two-storey warehouse,” Nor Syaima told MalaysiaNow. “There were 50 of us including the neighbours’ families. We stayed there until 4am.
“We had children with us, disabled people and senior citizens. There was no food.”
Nor Syaima was among the thousands of people displaced by the floods in Selangor and the greater Klang Valley. As of Dec 20, more than 32,000 in the state had been evacuated to 162 relief centres, with Klang recording the most victims at 18,858.
In Taman Sri Muda, Bukit Lanchong and Hulu Langat, which bore the brunt of the floods, houses were swept away and cars abandoned by the roads.
While floods are an annual occurrence in Malaysia, particularly in the east coast, the massive torrents over the weekend caught the authorities off guard.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, Norhazlina Fairuz Musa Kutty of the National Defence University said government agencies had not been expecting such major flash floods in the Klang Valley.
“The problem is familiar but we did not take it seriously,” Norhazlina who is attached to the university’s humanitarian assistance and disaster relief research centre said.
“We think that flash floods come and go quickly but now we see that the effects are the same as that of the floods caused by the monsoon season, which could go on for days.”
Hazlina, whose research focuses on civil-military urban disaster management in the Klang Valley, said interviews with various government agencies had revealed that personnel were prepared for the monsoon season in the east coast, but not the unexpected flash floods in urban areas.
Such disasters are more complicated in urban areas which have higher levels of population density than rural heartlands, she said.
The Klang Valley floods have been attributed in part to the unusually high rainfall on Friday, when an average one month’s worth of rain came dumping down in just one day.
Zaini Ujang, secretary-general of the environment and water ministry, said such a phenomena occurs about once every 100 years.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, he attributed it to monsoon flow factors and a low-pressure weather system.
Hazllina meanwhile said it was important to always be alert to the possibility of flash floods.
She suggested that the government follow in the footsteps of Indonesia by creating a consortium comprising agencies and NGOs to handle the relevant assets.
“Those agencies require new assets but the issue is the maintenance of those assets along with the existing ones,” she said.
“Under a consortium, funds could be channelled to it. Each agency can allocate part of their budget to it. The money will be used for those assets and their maintenance.”
While a disaster law would help ensure better enforcement in management, she said, responsibility should not be placed on government bodies alone.
This is where the concept of total defence or pertahanan menyeluruh (Hanruh) comes into play.
Hanruh is part of a comprehensive security system that brings together communities, state and non-state actors.
Again, she referred to the situation in Indonesia which has what is known as the Bela Negara doctrine.
“It starts from preschool,” she said. “Everything they do, whether it’s cleaning the streets or unclogging the drains, they do for the country. This idea has been assimilated into society.”
She gave the example of Acheh, which, although behind Malaysia in terms of development, is prepared for disaster at a community level, she said.
“When it comes to responding to disasters, we depend 100% on the government,” she added.
Hazlina said it is also important for people to be self-reliant for the first 24 to 48 hours after disaster strikes, while waiting for aid to arrive.
Back in Puchong, Nor Syaima was finally rescued by members of an NGO who made the trip to the warehouse by boat.
Now, she and her family are assessing the damage to their house, sifting through what remains of their possessions.
Thinking back, she said, the flood had been unexpected.
“We had no emergency bag – we didn’t think of it,” she said. “But we may need one some day. We might also need a store, somewhere safe to keep our belongings.”