Relief agencies scramble to help rain-soaked Asia

The annual monsoons - from Korea to Bangladesh - have driven millions of people from their homes.

Kim San Ok abandoned her home again this year with seven relatives, including daughters-in-law and grandchildren.

"In 1996 the water came over our rooftops and we lost everything. We practically became paupers," says Mrs. Kim, resting with her family at a temporary shelter in a school here. After being flooded twice, their house is too damaged to move back in.

From Korea, east to China, and south to Bangladesh and the Philippines, seasonal flooding is taking its toll. The International Committee of the Red Cross is launching a worldwide appeal for funds to help those affected.

In South Korea, four days of torrential rain, followed by Typhoon Olga early this week, have displaced 25,000 and killed more than 60 people. In Munsan, a sleepy town near the North Korean border, many streets are still flooded. But the cleanup effort is going full tilt.

Soldiers are clearing debris and muck in the hot sun, while pumps labor to drain the basements. Utility workers scurry around installing cables for electricity, as others try to bring back gas and tap water.

Mrs. Kim's family will get $26,000 in flood insurance and various breaks and assistance from government agencies, but it won't be enough. "It was extremely hard to start over again. I haven't even paid back loans [from banks in 1996] yet," she says.

Earlier that morning, news spread that President Kim Dae Jung was visiting. So one of Mrs. Kim's daughters-in-law went out to meet the president with protest signs. "It's a natural disaster, but it could have been prevented. This is a repeat of 1996. The government has done nothing since then," says Ham Dae Keun, Mrs. Kim's eldest son.

After 1996 the government feared residents would flee and that Munsan would become a ghost town. Authorities promised new anti-flood infrastructure like higher levees, elevated roads, and pumps. But partly because of the Asian economic crisis, which hit South Korea in the fall of 1997, the plans were not fully carried out. The region is particularly susceptible because two-thirds of its river basin is in North Korea and unable to be administered by South Korean authorities.

In Munsan a nearby levee broke at about 2 a.m. on Sunday - 2-1/2 days before the typhoon had even hit. Some houses filled with water up to chest level in 10 minutes. "We knew it was dangerous, but we couldn't move elsewhere. If I had had the money ... I would have," says Kim.

This year the government appears to be responding quickly - a multimillion dollar assistance package was announced Wednesday. But "it's too early to tell whether the government is doing a good job this time or not," says Kim.

"I'm with my little sister, so it's not so boring," says Kim's granddaughter Ham Min Ju. They sit on blankets donated by the Korean National Red Cross.

The family's only change of clothes also came from the Red Cross. In the middle of the night, they had time only to grab a radio and a mobile phone before fleeing.

A TV behind them shows shots of Munsan and other flooded towns. In the corner of the screen a phone number flashes soliciting call-in donations. The running tally is approaching $2 million.

At a nearby train station, three of the country's largest companies - LG, Daewoo, and Samsung - have brought in a small army of repairmen to offer service on their products. A forest of washing machines, refrigerators, and TVs sit around them. Others make do on their own. A hardware store is drying out nuts and bolts in the sunshine as if they were chili peppers.

Just 10 miles north of here, the flooding in North Korea could be much worse, exacerbating famine in the isolated totalitarian state. Across the border in China, 725 deaths have already been attributed to flooding this summer and more than 5 million have been displaced. But last year, in China's worst flooding in four decades, 30 million people were affected and 4,100 had died by the end of the season. Downstream, in Thailand, 5 deaths have been reported but more rains were expected.

On the west side of the peninsula, Vietnam had not reported any deaths, but storms normally hit hardest later in the fall, bringing benefits by clearing pests from the fields. Across the South China Sea, in the Philippines, more than 70,000 people had left their houses. Officials said some collapsed homes near Manila had been built on soft ground.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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