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A year after floods devastated Timor-Leste, the country is still recovering as more wild weather looms

SBS News - April 3, 2022

In April last year, heavy rainfalls from Cyclone Seroja caused flash flooding and landslides across Timor-Leste, destroying tens of thousands of homes and killing 48 people, with 14 still unaccounted for.

Zulmira Alves dos Reis and her husband Luis da Costa told SBS News they will never forget the moment they watched their family home swallowed by floodwaters.

"I can still remember standing at the end of the road at about 4.30am, we stayed there watching till about 6am, the house sinking in front of us, with only about 50cm left visible," Zulmira said through an interpreter in her native dialect, Tetun.

"We worked for years and did everything we could just to watch our home disappear in just two hours."

Luis, also speaking through an interpreter in his native dialect Tetun, said he remembers being on "high alert" as light rain quickly turned into a devastating deluge in a matter of hours.

"The rain started to come down heavily around 9pm, everyone else was asleep in the house but I couldn't sleep," he said.

"I stayed watching the rain until midnight. You see we live near mountains and a river, I kept looking at the house next door, but everything seemed fine.

"Then just after 1am the ground started to slide from the top of the mountain. I woke my wife and my children up and got them out of the house, it was about 3am the water started to rise."

The area on which Luis and Zulmira's home once stood appears empty at first glance.

On further inspection, the bent foundations of a neighbourhood begin to appear, scattered across the mountainous village buried under rock and dirt.

Luis inspects the ruins of his property, warning his wife to be careful of the twisted metal which had once been the roof of their home.

The pair said they'd spent close to $40,000 to build their house, taking out a partial loan for the down payment.

Now, they both live in a rental property and said the dream of owning their own property washed away with their life savings last year.

"The thought of losing it all again in just a couple of hours is too great a burden," said Luis.

"We also have our children to think about. Even if we could afford it, which we can't, it really depends on the government whether we can rebuild."

The couple are one of thousands of families who lost their home and were displaced following the April 2021 floods.

All 13 municipalities of Timor-Leste were impacted, with 33,835 households affected, 48 deaths and 14 people still unaccounted for.

About half the number of people who died were in the capital Dili, where more than 80 per cent of the households damaged were found.

State of calamity

The Timor-Leste government declared a "state of calamity" in the capital for close to two months in the aftermath of the floods.

Authorities provided food, shelter and emergency supplies to those affected. Timor-Leste also asked for international assistance with Australia providing a $7 million emergency relief package.

Heavy rain and potential flooding is expected again this year because of the La Nina weather system affecting the southern Pacific region.

But some have said their needs were not met last year and services are still lacking for those with special needs.

Joazito dos Santos is the Director of Ra'es Hadomi Timor Oan (RHTO) a not-for-profit organisation focusing on the needs of people with disability in Timor Leste.

"People with disabilities are often marginalised and many were closely affected in the floods last year," he said.

Mr dos Santos would like to see more accessibility for people with disabilities at the evacuation centres being set up.

He worries infrastructure to help people with special needs hasn't been thought about, even one year on from the tragic natural disaster.

"Some people aren't even able to evacuate themselves, and if they are evacuated, the locations aren't fit to support people with different needs."

Mr dos Santos said it isn't just people with disabilities but also the elderly who need to be thought about in these events.

He hopes the government will pay more attention to the more vulnerable people in the community.

"The evacuation centres still aren't accessible, we want the government to pay extra attention to making them more accessible," he said.

"We also need information that will be helpful for someone with a disability so even before evacuation is needed, they can try and help themselves."

Mr dos Santos said that one staff member, Eduardo Tilman, is wheelchair-bound and feared for his life during the floods.

"At the time the water was rising, I felt like I couldn't do anything," he said.

"In my heart and in my mind, I thought to myself I will probably die here," Eduardo said through an interpreter.

"I remember not being able to go anywhere and feeling helpless because I knew my wife would need to make a decision between saving me or the children."

Eduardo said his children screamed for help as they saw the water rising around their home. He was quickly assisted by his neighbours, but said the rescue mission could have taken all of their lives.

"I was very scared, the place was getting more dangerous," he said. "It was difficult for them to carry me, they just held my hand and we swam for our lives."

The Timor-Leste government told SBS News more measures have been put in place this year to avoid the catastrophic events of last year.

"It was predicted that La Nina will most probably happen again," said the Secretariat of State for Civil Protection Timor Leste, Joaquim Jose Gusmao dos Reis Martins.

"Since September last year, we've alerted the community through SMS that they should be prepared for similar weather coming into April."

He said that the department is working with other factions of government, both in Timor-Leste and internationally, to prepare for the worst.

"We've had a coordination meeting and have identified the evacuation centres – especially in Dili – where we will take people, learning from the previous disaster," he said.

Mr Reis Martins said he keeps a watchful eye on the skies during the wet season, especially during its peak throughout April and May.

He said a portion of the budget had been allocated towards protecting the Timor-Leste community.

"We provide around USD$3.5 million ($4.6 million) for material construction and more than USD$2 million ($2.6 million) for any emergency situations," he said.

"If the rain lasts more than 35 minutes we'll go out and see if the community needs anything."

Mr Reis Martins said with predictions that floods will happen again, he hopes the preparation will allow the young country to overcome the odds, better equipped this wet season.

Source: https://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/a-year-on-timor-leste-braces-for-more-floods/ck1ahwb0