Monday, December 8, 2008

Introducing... Malaysia's Fabulous Northeast Monsoon!

In Peninsular Malaysia, there is no real day-to-day difference in the weather when it comes to temperature. It's about 87-88°F every day and plummets to 72-74° every night. Occasionally, it will get a little warmer, and sometimes it stays relatively cool, but for the most part, life here three degrees north of the equator hums along in a very narrow range of temperatures. The two actual "seasons" here are the dry season and the rainy season, but even these are not distinct. From what I can gather, the peninsula here is subject to two monsoonal flows during the year. The Northeast monsoon, from November to March, brings loads of moisture and characteristically heavy rains from the South China Sea (which lies northeast of KL). The eastern coast of the peninsula gets more rain than the west coast (KL is near the west coast). The rainfall is so prolific there that a local tourist island off the east coast, Perhentian, is effectively "closed" during the worst of the rainy season. The Southwest monsoon runs from late May to October, and typically brings drier weather, although it can (and does) rain at any time of the year.

So we're definitely in the rainy season now, and it's living up to its billing. It honestly rains at some point almost every day, and although last Sunday was the first Sunday since I moved here three months ago that it didn't rain, it rained yesterday morning, was dry for the rest of the day, then started raining again last night and has rained, quite literally, all day today (Monday, December 8). This is a bit of a shame for the locals since today is a public holiday here. (It's called hari raya haji, a day of celebration marking the end of the annual haj—the Muslims' pilgramage to Mecca.) It's been a mostly light to moderate rain, but it hasn't let up for a long time, and it's kept the temperatures down, too. I've talked to friends today who say they're very cold—it's been 74°F all day—and you can imagine their reaction when I tell them it was 4°F in Denver last week. (Snow and -15°C, I tell them, which actually means something to Malaysians. The Fahrenheit scale is greater mystery to metric system users than Celsius is to Americans.) This picture was taken from my balcony around noon... the clouds and mist settled into the treetops of the surrounding hillside jungle and really made for a picturesque, evocative sort of mood. I definitely recommend clicking on and enlarging this picture.

Obviously, the big problem with all this rain is flooding, and the east coast sees heavy flooding almost every year during the Northeast monsoon. Here in the Klang Valley, the incessant rains take their toll on the steep hillside slopes amidst which, and regrettably, sometimes on which KL is built. Last Thursday, not far from where I live, a large retaining wall in a commercial area failed, and the resulting landslide buried—and destroyed—eleven cars. The failure was perilously close to an office building and the debris and dirt was very nearly pushed out onto the highway.

I took this picture from across the highway today, in the rain, and you can see the mangled remains of five cars. (Those flattened things by the palm trees on the right were actually two cars.) This is a good photo to enlarge to really appreciate the damage that tons of concrete and earth can do. Fortunately, there were no casualties.

That wasn't the case two days later. Late at night, while residents slept, a massive landslide struck the Taman Hillside area of Bukit Antarabangsa. (In the first photo, the circled apartment building is actually where I lived for my first month here. That large patch of denuded forest is the landslide, so you can see how close it came to the building. My ex-housemate reports that he's looking for a new place to live now. Rather understandable.) Fourteen large houses were destroyed. Some were buried, others were simply forcibly shifted off their foundations. These pictures are from the local paper, and don't really offer sufficient resolution to appreciate the scale of the disaster. Four people were killed, many more injured, and one is still missing. Over 3,000 have been evacuated as the area is deemed unsafe.
Coincidentally, this landslide occurred almost 15 years to the day after one of Malaysia's most notorious and tragic disasters, the Highland Towers collapse. Less than half a mile from Saturday morning's landslide, on December 11, 1993, ten days of continuous rain caused the weakening and failure of a retaining wall of the parking garage under a 12-story condominium building. The entire structure collapsed. As I've mentioned before, buildings here—even those such as the Petronas Towers—are constructed with reinforced concrete, not steel girders like many large buildings in the U.S., so the sheer mass of this building must have been incredible. The collapse killed 48 people, and the other two apartment blocks in the development were evacuated and condemned, and—of course—looted and vandalized over the years. They still stand there today, completely gutted and in a terrible state of moldy disrepair... only the concrete skeletal superstructures remain. Locals believe the site to be haunted and late-night forays to the abandoned towers are apparently a spooky rite of passage with some Malaysian teens... kind of like an eerie midnight visit to a graveyard by kids in the U.S.

Already, comparisons are being made between this latest slide in Bukit Antarabangsa and the tragedy of 1993, which resulted in a great flurry of lawsuits, all of which ultimately resulted in, to the dismay of many, everyone being absolved of any liability whatsoever. So now, accusations are flying in the media here that lessons weren't learned, the local councils are corrupt, developers are greedy and foolish, there's no accountability, etc. This should all sound quite familiar to Americans, as pointing fingers and filing lawsuits are two of our most time-honored ways of reacting to disasters. One op-ed piece here suggested that Malaysians are acting too resigned over this tragedy and not outraged enough. Further hillside developments have been halted, of course, but few believe that this latest ban will be upheld or enforced any more stringently than previous ones.
The last picture here shows the destroyed Highland Towers building shortly after its collapse in 1993, along with the two remaining condo blocks.

Hasn't this been a cheerful entry? I'll try to make sure the next one isn't as dismal. For now, though, the rain has finally stopped, so I think I'll go swimming. I mentioned this a little while ago to one of my friends, whose immediate response was, "On a cold night like this??" Yes, these brutal, frigid 75-degree nights... how will I survive much longer here? :)


Steven said...

Rain, rain, go away,
Little Chad wants out to play...

That photo from your condo is spectacular. As miserable as the constant drizzle is, it definitely creates saturated colors in photographs.

When we lived in Alaska I was talking with a friend in Palm Springs and we realized that it was 100 degrees between his temperature (70 degrees) and ours (-30 degrees). I doubt your Malaysian friends can even comprehend negative temperatures. BTW, -40 degrees is the same in Fahrenheit and Celcius.

Keep up the journal entries, Chad -- it's like living in KL vicariously.


Barb said...

Another great entry in your blog. Wish we could get SOME of that moisture here in Denver...a little rain would be nice. I love the photo of the jungle and clouds from your place! Nice!

Chad M. said...

The thing is, it's NOT a constant drizzle and it's definitely not miserable. (Unlike in Colorado, where even the rare summer rains are cold, it's always a warm rain here.) That day was a true aberration. Usually, it just pours down rain for an hour or so and is fine the rest of the day.

As always, thank you for the comments!! I kind of like living "in the jungle," so to speak. :)