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The devastating aftermath of the storm that hit Krabei Riel commune on May 18
The devastating aftermath of the storm that hit Krabei Riel commune on May 18. JONI AKER

Expats dig deep after the storm

Fundraisers for decimated commune bring in big bucks for reconstruction effort

Reconstruction efforts at Krabei Riel commune, which was decimated by a severe storm earlier this month, have been boosted by the donation of thousands of dollars from Siem Reap’s expat community.

New Zealander Joni Aker, the fundraiser for Self Help Community Centre, a local NGO that has worked in the community for eight years, was there on May 18 when the storm hit. She said she had never seen anything like it.

“It was terrifying,” she said. “There were trees flying everywhere, and you couldn’t see anything. It probably only lasted an hour, but it felt like forever. And then the hail came.

”We were with the children at the school, and they were completely beside themselves. They’re still traumatised.”

The commune, which covers 12 villages and about 1,400 families, is just a 20-minute-drive from central Siem Reap, yet saw damage on a completely different scale to the provincial capital, which suffered another power cut, a frequent feature of this year’s nascent rainy season.

In Krabei Riel, commune chief Cheam Phae confirmed that about 94 houses were destroyed, with another nearly 200 severely damaged. Aker said that up to 90 per cent of the houses in the district were damaged in some way. The predominantly agricultural community also lost valuable livestock.

“It’s amazing that no one died,” said Aker, recalling how several people in the commune lost their lives during the flooding of October 2011.

An elderly woman sits outside her damaged home
An elderly woman sits outside her damaged home. GEORGE NICKELS

Many houses came off their pilings, landing on villagers seeking to protect themselves behind the concrete stairs to their homes.

Villager Sot Sam Ang, 34, recounted her fortunate escape.

“I was under my house when the heavy rains and wind came. I didn’t realise it would be a massive storm, so I didn’t run anywhere else. A minute later, the house fell down on top of me, but luckily I didn’t get hurt. I was really lucky.

“After the storm was gone, I tried to come out from my broken house by myself. I think I cannot forget this for the rest of my life,” she said.

One positive element to come out of the disaster is the response from Siem Reap’s expat community. As many took to the internet to complain about the prospect of another lengthy power cut following April’s five-day, four-night blackout, Aker posted an exasperated message on her Facebook page highlighting how lucky those complaining actually were. The response was resounding.

Within days, Aker was organising a fundraiser to help the community rebuild as donations for raffle prizes flooded in from the likes of Eric Raisina, Garden Of Desire, John McDermott, Shinta Mani, Heritage Suites Hotel, Villa Ni Say, Celliers d’Asie and 30 other businesses across Siem Reap.

The fundraising drive culminated in an evening at Miss Wong on Tuesday this week, with a crowd that spilled out onto the lane outside, while Miss Wong provided free canapes and DJs Sakura Boom and Strange Fruit provided the soundtrack. More than $4,600 was raised on the night.

The following day, The Station Wine Bar donated its takings from the whole night which, together with international donations, brought the total amount raised to more than $14,000.

“It goes to show how we can pull together as a community,” Aker said, all the more amazed as many of the businesses that contributed had donated to another fundraiser only days before.

“The response has just been incredible,” she said. “People have offered so much moral, financial and technical support. I’ve even had builders and engineers offering to help without me even asking.

“I’m used to pushing people for assistance. It’s been amazing.”

Work continues to assess needs within the communities. The money raised by SHCC will be spent according to individual needs, said Aker.

“We’re working to get them involved in the reconstruction efforts for the community. The more involved people are, the more they will be prioritised,” the New Zealander said.

Tarpaulins, mosquito nets, sleeping mats, kitchenware and food remain priority items.

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