Flooding in Indonesian capital forces 340,000 from homes; 29 dead

Monday, February 5th 2007, 6:25 am
By: News On 6

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ The scenes were eerily reminiscent of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Residents of Indonesia's capital waded through poor neighborhoods in water up to their necks, or floated on makeshift rafts bearing clothes and other salvaged possessions. Some scrambled onto roofs to await rescue from soldiers and emergency workers in rubber dinghies from floodwaters as deep as 12 feet.

Landslides and flash floods during the wet season kill hundreds in Indonesia every year, and this city of 12 million people is not immune. But it has rarely _ if ever _ seen floods as bad as those in recent days. The high water washed into rich and poor districts alike, inundating scores of markets, schools and businesses.

On Tuesday, storm waters that had receded washed back into many low-lying areas of Indonesia's capital following overnight rain, piling on the misery for some 340,000 people forced from their homes in the city where at least 29 have died after days of torrential rain.

Wealthy residents flocked to upscale hotels as vacant rooms grew increasingly scarce.

In the poorest districts, waters washed away scores of shacks.

``My life is guided by the flow of the water,'' said Ijah, a 45-year-old widow who has survived on donated rice and noodles. ``At least I have my health.''

But rising along with the water was the threat of diseases such as diarrhea and dysentery. Also increasing were complaints and anger about the response to the floods by local officials.

``The government is awful,'' said Augustina Rusli, who spent four days on the second floor of her suburban house with her 10-month-old baby. ``We have a neighbor who is sick with cancer, but no one has come to rescue her.''

Authorities earlier estimated that up to half of the city, which covers an area of more than 255 square miles, had been submerged in water reaching more than 13 feet deep in places.

City authorities were not collecting and releasing timely information on the extent of the floods or river levels, making it hard to get a complete picture of conditions across the city.

Residents in several districts said that water levels dropped or receded completely late Monday only to rise again after heavy downpours overnight. Most of the renewed flooding was reported to range from about 20 inches to more than 6 feet deep.

Indonesia's meteorological agency predicted more rain in the coming days, and officials warned that more floods were possible because river levels were still high.

``I really hope the forecast is wrong,'' said Jayeng, 45, as volunteers handed out cups of hot milk to children at a shelter where hundreds have been sleeping under leaky tarps.

``We are still afraid the water might rise again,'' said Jayeng, who uses a single name.

The seasonal, torrential rains in Jakarta and the hills to the south forced rivers to overflow their banks Thursday. Some residents initially chose to stay in the upper stories of their homes, expecting the waters to quickly subside, but as the disaster dragged into Monday, some left for makeshift camps at schools and mosques, or to stay with relatives.

Hundreds of thousands of residents remain without electricity and clean water.

Environmentalists blame the annual flooding on trash-clogged storm drains and rivers, inadequate urban planning, and deforestation of hillsides south of the city, often to make space for the development of luxury villas.

Low-lying river areas _ where thousands of poor people are crammed into shacks made of plywood and metal sheets _ are often the most devastated. On Monday, many of these were only accessible by boat.

Some people rented horse-drawn carriages to ford flooded streets or were pulled to dry land in garbage carts.

The floods entered most districts slowly, causing little initial structural damage to buildings or city infrastructure, and authorities expect they will recede in full, allowing residents to return.

The government dispatched medical teams on rubber rafts to worst-hit areas, where doctors treated people for diarrhea, skin diseases, respiratory problems and exposure after they had spent days in damp, dirty clothes.

``We have to be alert for diseases like typhoid, those transmitted by rats and respiratory infections. Hopefully, there will be no dysentery,'' said Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari. ``We know it's hard for the residents (to keep clean) under the circumstances, but they have to.''

The flood conditions were also favorable for spreading malaria, dengue fever and the bird flu virus, which has killed more humans in Indonesia than anywhere else, said Bayu Krisnamurthi, the country's leading avian influenza official.

Dr. Rustam Pakaya, from the Health Ministry's crisis center, said nearly 340,000 people had been driven from their homes.

Jakarta's governor _ who promised action the last time citywide floods occurred in 2002 _ said he was not responsible, insisting they were part of a natural cycle of extreme weather every five years.

``There is no point in throwing abuse around,'' Gov. Sutiyoso told el-Shinta radio station, responding to growing anger at his handling of the crisis.

``I was up till 3 a.m. this morning trying to handle the refugees,'' said Sutiyoso, who also goes by a single name.