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Survivors Remember Horror of Laos Dam Collapse

A girl uses a mattress as a raft during the flood after the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower dam collapsed in Attapeu province, Laos July 26, 2018.
A girl uses a mattress as a raft during the flood after the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower dam collapsed in Attapeu province, Laos July 26, 2018.
Survivors Remember Horror of Laos Dam Collapse
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Samled Inthavong of Attepeu Province, Laos, was trying to get his family into a boat when a building hit his house.

A dam had collapsed several kilometers away and water was speeding toward Attepeu, pulling down buildings along its path.

Floating in the water in the middle of the night, Inthavong watched as his house collapsed with his grandparents trapped inside.

“My grandparents couldn’t move. They died in the house,” he said. He spoke at a rescue center to which he arrived with his family and few possessions. Among those possessions was a photograph of his grandmother.

As his house collapsed, Inthavong’s boat hit his sister’s house, which sat next to his. There he, his wife and three children climbed onto the roof. But, the floodwaters kept rising, to more than 10 meters, and then his sister’s home was gone too.

He said, “At 2 o’clock in the morning, I was looking around the neighborhood. People were crying and the water was over the whole village. All the houses were gone. Some people were holding on to trees, some people were holding on to power poles.

Inthavong and his family moved to the steel structure and held on firmly. Violent waves crashed beneath them. It was hours before a rescue boat arrived.

Thousands rescued

Thirteen villages were flooded and destroyed in Attapeu province. The dam that broke July 23 was part of the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy (PNPC) hydropower complex.

The water moved with such force that it caused the evacuation of a town more than 100 kilometers away in Cambodia.

Lieutenant Colonel Khamsouk Khamleuangthep led the rescue team that saved Inthavong’s family and more than 1,500 other people.

The officer said, “I am really upset about this and I’ve been working from the beginning until now without stopping and I’m very happy to be helping the people.”

There are more than 6,500 survivors in shelters at five rescue bases, the local government says. In total, officials say 7,095 people have been displaced in Laos. State media report 35 dead and 99 missing.

Trauma, exhaustion, fury

The survivors are experiencing a mix of feelings: anger, severe shock, and extreme tiredness.

Sommay Keosuvanh is a 60-year-old man from Ban Mai village. He said SK E&C which operates the dam had told the village a large amount of water would be released. But, Keosuvanh said, the South Korean company did not warn of a possible collapse.

“When the water came, it came quick like a tsunami and people were scared,” he said, describing the first wave as at least one meter high.

He said the floodwaters destroyed 95 percent of the homes in the village.

SK E&C, which is building the dam jointly with PNPC, refused several requests for an explanation or statement.

But the Laos government this week said SK E&C’s careless construction was likely the reason for the collapse.

The government also announced inspections of about 50 hydropower projects before any more are approved.

Conservation groups have long criticized the Laotian government’s plan to use hydropower to turn Laos into “the battery of Asia.”

Ruined villages

Ban Mai and the village of Kokkong are destroyed. Along the road that connects them, the fields are filled with water. This year’s harvest disappeared with the flood.

Those who still have houses returned to look through the wreckage for objects to save. Sovampheng, a 38-year-old shopkeeper, was among the lucky few.

She said, “After spending the second night on the roof I moved to Ban Bok village and somebody came to steal from my shop in the eveningby entering from the roof."

Sovampheng said she and her husband felt they had to protect the little they had left. So they returned to their house in Kokkong and slept on its roof.

“I’m feeling very sad as I just bought new supplies for my shop and I lost everything,” she said.

Back at the rescue center, Inthavong and other survivors wait to find out what the government will do for them.

I’m Jonathan Evans.

And I'm Caty Weaver.

VOA’s David Boyle reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

roof n. the top of a building

pole – n. a long, straight piece of wood, metal, etc., that is often placed in the ground so that it stands straight up

hydropower – n. electricity produced from machines that are run by moving water

evacuation – n. to remove people from a dangerous place

tsunami – n. a very high, large wave in the ocean that is usually caused by an earthquake under the sea and that can cause great destruction when it reaches land

construction – n. the act of building something

evening – n. early nighttime

battery – n. a device that is placed inside a machine (such as a clock, toy, or car) to supply it with electricity