Krys Lee | The Floods in Seoul · LRB 16 September 2022

A park beside the Han river, 10 August 2022. Picture © Ahn Younger-joon/AP/Shutterstock

My earliest recollections of Korea revolve round rain. As a school scholar visiting for the summer time, I stood up a man ready on the principal entrance of Yonsei College as a result of the rain coming down as laborious as pet food pellets prevented my bus from making a lot progress. After I moved to Seoul after graduate faculty, a darkish moist patch grew and unfold alongside the ceiling in the course of the wet season. It was a brand new rental and the owner would have the roof waterproofed, solely to witness the patch develop once more the next yr. Extra not too long ago, I met a college colleague for the primary time, an Italian literature professor and novelist. Inside 5 minutes of our encounter in Gongdeok-dong, a enterprise district, the heavy rains break up the soles of my new open-toe sandals and left me strolling embarrassed and barefoot alongside my fashionable colleague.

However the rain this summer time was one thing else once more. On 8 August, in the midst of the busiest vacation interval of the yr, when folks usually escape to the seashores and mountains to get away from the oppressive warmth, the rain got here down so closely that the view by our automobile windscreen was just like the white noise of poor tv reception. My associate and I had been close to house, fortunately, and steered the automobile at a crawl by the empty avenue to our storage. Below the cruel rains and shrill winds, our condo partitions shook and the lights flickered. From the protection of my sofa, regardless of the rain coming down like sleet and the heavy cumulonimbus clouds that swallowed up my view of Bukhansan Nationwide Park, the potential of catastrophe felt far-off. I later discovered that simply ten minutes’ stroll from my condo, across the Yadang Station space, the place I normally catch the subway, the flooding was so intense that males had swum away from their floating automobiles.

The world round Gangnam Station in southern Seoul, made well-known internationally by the Ok-pop music ‘Gangnam Fashion’, is formed like a basin. There are gleaming workplace buildings and underground procuring arcades, and the streets are usually full of crowds like shoals of anchovies. On 8 August the Gangnam Severance Hospital and the COEX shopping center had been flooded. Streets grew to become canals. The rain got here so laborious and quick {that a} brother and sister of their fifties had been sucked right into a manhole and died. A forty-year-old man checking on his automobile in a basement parking zone was swept up by a sudden torrent and drowned. Three folks died trapped of their semi-basement flat in Sillim-dong, a neighbourhood west of Gangnam, when it abruptly stuffed with water.

A lady climbed onto a bus bench in Gyeonggi Province and clung to the rail because the water degree rose till she was lastly swept away by the roaring present. Individuals waded by streets of waist-high muddy waters between gleaming skyscrapers. A person sat on the windscreen of his submerged automobile within the abandoned intersection of Gangnam Station with solely his cellular phone and different floating automobiles for firm.

The depth of rain on the Korean peninsula has steadily elevated since 2000 due to local weather change, and the rains final month had been the heaviest in 115 years of document retaining. Even because the rain has received worse, we’ve grow to be extra susceptible to it. Gangnam was as soon as paddy fields and fruit plantations, town’s rice bowl all through the Joseon dynasty, but it surely grew to become the goal of metropolis planning and actual property hypothesis from the Nineteen Sixties onwards. The flooding was not solely a pure catastrophe; it was additionally a consequence of poor engineering, and of a sewer system blocked by garbage and cigarette butts, in addition to much-criticised municipal price range cuts. Korea has widespread 5G and makes fridges that discuss to you, however couldn’t maintain its drains from clogging.

The rains continued relentlessly for 2 extra days. Watching the information I used to be disconcerted by the intensive protection of BMWs lodged between bike racks and submerged Teslas, as if luxurious automobiles moderately than folks had been the principle victims. YouTube was stuffed with movies displaying potential patrons the right way to detect and keep away from flood-damaged automobiles.

After Gangnam was hit by much less extreme flooding in 2010, the sewer capability was expanded however a transfer to create a flood map of the world was blocked by folks fearful in regards to the impact it may need on property costs. After I first moved to Seoul, Gangnam appeared to me like a grim district of limitless rows of gray condo complexes. I quickly discovered these residences price hundreds of thousands of {dollars}. However Gangnam is greater than costly actual property: it represents wealth, schooling and excessive standing. The identify means ‘south of the river’ and the Han river was for a few years an imagined line between the haves and have-nots. The financial actuality is way extra blended and blurred, however the common notion persists. There was no scarcity of on-line feedback taking satisfaction in Gangnam’s flooding: ‘Since water stands for prosperity, it’s solely proper that it floods the area the place individuals are loopy about cash’; ‘It’s a cursed city in spite of everything … The deliberate metropolis of the privileged, please be doomed.’ The suggestions was controversial sufficient for a lot of newspapers to close down their feedback part.

If a Gangman condo is an emblem of wealth, a semi-basement flat is an emblem of poverty (as within the film Parasite). On 10 August, the president of South Korea visited the semi-basement in Sillim-dong the place the household had died. He inspected the dim, mildewed hall and crouched down to see by the low-lying window. As an editorial in Hankook Ilbo noticed, the semi-basement house was persevering with its position as a political photo-op. In actuality, the typical lease worth for a semi-basement in Seoul now runs to almost 100 thousand US {dollars}, and most of the tenants are younger professionals. Conversely, a lot of these worst affected by the flooding in Gangnam weren’t particularly rich. They commuted to work there or ran small companies in rented retail area. Web cafés and music rooms incurred huge harm within the rains, having already endured two years of Covid lockdowns. Even so, the climate is a formidable equaliser. Simply because the rising sea degree impacts Florida’s multi-million-dollar condos in addition to abnormal folks, the rains in Seoul left nobody unscathed.

This piece is a part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Climate Community.

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