By Maude Froberg, IFRC

The sound of digging echoes over the mountain slope in the early morning. It is a slow arduous digging, as the soil is becoming more frozen by the day. Choe Gwang Chol, volunteer from the Red Cross, leans against his spade and pauses.

“There is still a lot of mud in the gardens and next to the houses,” he says.

It has now been months since the double disasters of floods and a landslide hit North and South Hwanghae province in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). In Kumchon county the traces are still visible. The landslide, caused by heavy rains, has left a scar where when it came crashing down, ripping houses and families apart. Sha­­rds of what were homes are still scattered in the mud: pieces of clothes, part of a roof, a broken teacup.

“The volunteers dug out the trapped residents from their houses and helped move household items from the debris. When the first landslide happened, 12 people were buried under the mud and the rescuers searched also for them,” recalls Choe Gwang Chol.

Tested by the response

Choe Hwa Sok, DPRK Red Cross Branch Leader, is dressed in a warm black jacket and extends a welcome by apologising for the temporary location of the organization. It is chilly inside and rays of sun find their way through the dusty window. The previous training room of the Red Cross was washed away in the floods that struck this community in the end of August.

This was not the first time floods have happened in this area, but people were not prepared for a second danger “On the day of the disaster, people evacuated from the flood-affected area, which was according to plan. After all, we are situated downstream. Meanwhile, people at the foot of the hill thought they were safe. Then the landslide came crashing down. It has never happened before,” she says.

It started raining on 28 August, but the rain did not seem heavy, Choe Hwa Sok recalls. Then came the downpour in the morning of the following day. In just a few hours, 678 mm rain fell. She led some 250 volunteers in performing early warning, while helping some 10,000 people to evacuate. The volunteers also carried out search and rescue, and transported injured people to hospitals.

People here had experienced floods, but never landslides.

In all, 242,000 people were displaced, 42 were killed and 31 went still missing in Kumchon County.

In response, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) released 383,123 Swiss francs from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to support the DPRK Red Cross with distribution of emergency supplies such as cooking sets, blankets, tarpaulins, hygiene sets and water containers.

Daniel Wallinder, IFRC Disaster Risk Management Delegate, says, “The floods are part of a general and worrying trend in the past years of extreme and highly volatile weather that need further improvements in early warning systems and greater community training. Although geographically dispersed, the damage to land and to infrastructure often happens in areas that we could predict would be high-risk.”

This time, the response was not without challenges.

“The Red Cross volunteers had to walk 16 kilometres to reach people in the flood-affected area of Ryanghap-ri. What normally takes four hours to walk took eight hours. It was a rocky road, partly closed,” he says.

This action was noted by the authorities.

Yu Sun Hong, Vice Chairperson of County People’s Committee says. “We are very grateful to the Red Cross. I saw many volunteers engaged and I also got to know about the IFRC. In the past we have seen the Red Cross do good things, but during the disaster the organization performed lots of relief activities. Red Cross volunteers carried medicines and emergency relief items to six affected rural communities. They also distributed water to people living in temporary shelters.”

The inhabitants of Kumchon county are now stepping up preparedness and awareness about the new danger. They are mapping disaster risks, ensuring people are aware of early warning systems and running evacuation drills. The double disaster has brought home the importance of preparing for the unexpected.

Learning to heed to early warnings

The small white house with a thatched roof is located on a side street. One by one, children in colourful jackets pass by on their way home from school. This is the temporary home of Ho Song Ran, a single mother of three.

A bed with warm quilts covers almost the entire living room.

“The house is not big, but I am happy about it,” she says in a soft but confident voice.

In the morning, the heavy downpour started and the children were just about to go to school.

“I had received an early warning about heavy rain the night before. Even though I had noted it, I didn’t think of going to a shelter, because I had never experienced anything like this before,” she says.

“Then I saw people evacuating and being swept away by the torrential rain. Quilts, pillows and debris were being washed away from the houses and it was only then that I felt terrified. The upper parts of my house were torn off. The first thought that came to my mind was that the kids would die in the house if we stayed there,” she says.

The family then moved into a tent, then to a middle school.

The DPRK Red Cross with the support of IFRC has provided her with household items such as cooking utensils, quilts and a hygiene kit. The only thing she is missing is a chopping board.

With winter just around the corner people like Ho Song Ran and her children remain highly vulnerable, but the community has come closer. Many people affected by the double disaster moved in with neighbours and for this single mother to pay back is essential.

“Today I am a victim without a house, but with shelter. In the future I will remember all the experiences and urge others to follow the early warnings so that people can evacuate at the right time.”