Thailand has always had a serious flooding problem, as seen in TV images broadcast around the world during 2011. In that year the world saw parts of northern and central Thailand under water, but the south is affected just as badly. Floods are most likely to occur in Hat Yai from around October to January.
The flood defence infrastructure has been improved and the situation has improved but flooding still occurs, especially during times of intense La Niņa activity.
There was a big flood in 2000 before I arrived. Just after I arrived at the end of 2003 there were minor floods around town, but nothing too serious.
Flooding in 2005 affected the Kate 8 area of Hat Yai quite badly and this was the first time I had seen flooding that affected people's homes.
For several years after that there was no flooding and many local residents believed the problems had been fixed for good.
I moved to a rented house in the Kate 8 area in September 2010. I asked my neighbours if flooding was a problem and they told me not any more. I did quite a lot to the house and bought new furniture. A few weeks after moving, Hat Yai experience the worst flood in its history.
The following photos and comments recount my flood experience.
The 2010 Hat Yai Flood
This is the flood that everyone in Hat Yai thought could never happen. After I arrived in 2003 everyone always talked about the big flood of 2000 in such a way that a similar disaster could never be repeated.
This confidence stemmed from the work that had been carried out on the town's flood defences prior to 2010. A huge canal was built in the Hat Yai Nai area (named Oo Dta-pao); work was carried out to allow water to go under the new Hat Yai to Songkhla road; and other work was done.
When the 2010 flood hit, it was actually worse than the one in 2000. One business owner told me that her shop got 1.5m of water in 2000 but in 2010 the water level rose to 2m. An 80 year-old man told me he had never seen anything like this in his life.
Compared to the 2000 flood, this one also arrived a lot quicker. My house had no water inside at 1:30am but there was about 1.5m of water two hours later and shortly after that the water level reached around 2m. The severity of the flood and the speed at which it arrived took everyone by surprise.
There was a flood in 2005 (following months of rain) but it didn't do too much damage apart from the area in Hat Yai Nai around Wat Koke. This area seems to be about the lowest lying area in Hat Yai. Whereas most areas of Hat Yai got about 2m of flood water in 2010, I was talking to someone who lived near Wat Koke and they got 3m.
I suspect the start of the problem was the formation of La Niņa conditions that lowered the sea surface temperature in the Eastern Central Pacific Ocean. This upset the weather system and on October 12 a disturbance formed in the South China Sea.
As the storm moved, it increased in intensity eventually turning into a tropical cyclone. It was named Cyclone Jal.
Throughout October the TV news reports had been full of flood reports from central, north and northeast Thailand. Nakorn Rachasima (Korat) was badly hit, as was Ayuthaya. The flood waters continued to move south and Bangkok was put on alert.
Meanwhile the south had remained fairly dry but that was all about to change quite suddenly and quite dramatically.
Flood warnings were issued in Hat Yai around the 27th or 28th of October. What surprised me was the certainty with which they were issued. We weren't told that there might be floods; we were told there would be floods. However, no one was sure how much flooding there would be or how much of the town would be affected.
On the evening of Friday 29th October it started raining heavily. This is normal in tropical Thailand so no one was too bothered. However, after several hours there was no sign of the rain letting up. If anything, it seemed to increase in intensity.
It rained all day on Saturday 30th October, all night, and it continued to rain all day on Sunday. I was getting concerned but the flood defences seemed to be holding up quite well. My wife's sister's house looks out over the new canal and she reported on Sunday that the water level was very low.
The rain continued on Monday 1st October and it was just as heavy. On Monday the reports from the canal weren't as good. From being almost empty 24 hours before it was now almost full. At this point I was very concerned.
Since arriving in Thailand I had always lived in apartment buildings on the second floor or higher but after getting married in August 2010 we had moved to a house at the beginning of October. Not only does the house have a ground floor but it is also located in an area with a bad history of flooding. The omens weren't looking good.
Throughout August, September and October I had spent a lot of time and money getting the house just right.
The rain continued to fall but there was still no flooding. On Monday evening my wife's brothers showed up at the house and started to take our stuff upstairs. They kept talking about a two metre flood but I was still hoping nothing would happen.
Our sofa was propped up on the stairs, the smaller items were upstairs, but our dining table and a new kitchen unit I'd bought were still downstairs. We put the fridge on the kitchen counter hoping to keep it dry if water entered the house.
I imagined that if it flooded the water wouldn't be that high and so I ignored everything that was above about four feet off the ground. That was a bad mistake. If I had known what was to follow I could have saved more of my possessions. I ended up throwing out new furniture that I had only bought a couple of months before.
We went to bed with it still raining heavily. We were concerned but hopeful. At around 11pm the rain stopped. The heavy rain had been falling constantly since Friday night and we were so used to the sound that the sudden silence sounded eerie.
I suddenly felt relieved. No flooding had occurred and the rain had finally stopped. Perhaps now the water in the storm drains and canals would start to go down?
What I hadn't realised, however, was that the damage had already been done and the danger was no longer in the sky.
There had been bad flooding in northern Malaysia and in the Sadao district of Thailand near the Malaysian border. These area don't have much in the way of flood defences so instead of the water being contained it had just been let loose.
Thais refer to this phenomenon as naam bpaa (wild water) and the wild water was on its way to Hat Yai. Hat Yai is low lying and water always finds the lowest level.
The cessation of the rain was inconsequential and had given me false hope. The real danger was the 'wild water' from further south.
A huge torrent of water had built up and this was now heading towards us. It arrived at my house as an unwanted guest just after 2am on the morning of Tuesday 2nd November 2010.
I went into a deep sleep and didn't hear my wife's brother call her at 1:30am in the morning of Tuesday 2nd November. He told her about flooding so she turned on the TV and saw the reports for herself. However, she looked downstairs and there was no water.
At 3:30am she heard a crash downstairs. The water had entered and risen very quickly. The crash was the flood water sweeping the fridge off the kitchen counter. She woke me and when I looked downstairs all of my worst fears were realised.
I was feeling shellshocked but Bpom was cool and collected and got me to retrieve some food out of the fridge, along with some other items.
According to people who had been in Hat Yai during the 2000 flood, the water level rose quite gradually. This time it was different. From nothing, the water rose to about 1.5m in two hours and two hours later it was around two metres.
While watching the flood water rise it looked as if the sofa was in danger, despite being halfway up the stairs. It was heavy but I managed to get it a few stairs higher.
At around 5:30am the water level seemed to peak - at roughly two metres - and then it was a case of waiting for it to recede. We were trapped upstairs but we had moved food and cooking facilities upstairs so we could survive.
The electricity and mains water had gone off. We have a water tank on the second floor and we drew some buckets of water with which to wash. We had bought a flashlight and candles so we had some light.
We coped but it wasn't much fun.
All we could do was look out from our balcony upstairs and wait for the water to recede. This is what everyone was doing. I had some battery power in one of my laptop computers so was able to write a little but my Internet connection was another casualty.
The road outside had been turned into a river. Instead of the usual cars and motorbikes, the silence was broken by the sound of boat engines. I never expected to see a classic Thai long-tail boat zipping past my front door but this is just what I saw.
The water level continued to go down gradually and by Wednesday morning (3rd November) it was down to about a metre. We were still trapped but the situation was improving quickly.
The situation in Ayuthaya was far worse with flood water lasting a month and showing no signs of receding.
By the morning of Thursday 4th November the water had gone, but actually 'water' is not really an accurate term. It was a filthy brown, foul-smelling liquid that had left a disgusting sludge on every surface it had been in contact with.
Downstairs my furniture had been ruined. The type of wood that most modern furniture is made from doesn't resist water. It just turns to pulp. We had only been living in our house one month when the flood struck and all the furniture was new.
We were desperate to start cleaning up but there was no clean running water. To get the worst of the thick, brown sludge out of the house we were forced to fill buckets from the storm drains. This water wasn't clean but it was a lot better than the flood water.
The electricity came back quite quickly but the water took a lot longer. Even after the water supply came back on the pressure was too low to fill our tank because so many people were using water to clean up.
In between cleaning up my own house I also walked around outside to assess the damage. Almost everyone had underestimated how bad this flood would be and the damage was huge. There had been warnings given out but a lot of equipment and machinery was too big and too heavy to get upstairs. Some very expensive, specialised machines were damaged beyond repair.
Thousands of motorbikes were submerged but these are fairly easy to fix. Many cars and vans were also submerged but it is a different story trying to repair a flood-damaged car.
Place your cursor over the thumbnail images for a caption and click for a larger image in a pop-up window.
During the flood I was initially trapped upstairs in my house without electricity. I also lost my Internet connection for about a week. However, I was taking photos and I had one laptop that had some battery power on which I was recording events as well as my own personal feelings at the time.
You can read more in my Thailand blog.
My conclusion is that despite all the improvements to Hat Yai's flood defences in recent years it still isn't enough. Hat Yai lies quite low and it is in the path of a natural flood plain. When the right weather conditions prevail - as they did in late October/early November 2010 - the town is still vulnerable to severe flooding.
Floods may not occur regularly every rainy season as they once did, but once in a while there is the risk of a major flood.
The problem is not a trivial one to fix. The water either needs to be contained further upstream by building huge reservoirs, or possibly huge drainage tunnels need to be dug underneath Hat Yai so that the flood water goes under - and not through - the town.
This solution is what is being planned for Bangkok: Giant tunnels to ease Bangkok flood risk
It won't be cheap but I was told that the damage caused in Hat Yai by the 2010 flood was estimated to be about Bt10 billion. If that is correct, then a major investment in this kind of flood infrastructure will save money in the long run.
The following images are not mine. If you are the owner and require a credit, a link, or you would like me to remove them please contact me. They were sent to me in an e-mail with no indication where they came from or who owns them.
It is unfortunate that I don't own a helicopter because these aerial shots show very clearly the extent to which the flood affected Hat Yai.
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