Striking a Balance

Why I’m in Grad School
by Anna Flam -- September 16th, 2013

On March 27, 2011 I awoke to my landlady screaming. She was below my window shouting directions to the army of nephews and cousins who work at her bungalow complex. They were throwing sandbags down to protect the motorcycles. I had been vaguely aware of rain throughout the morning. Torrential downpour isn’t unusual in Thailand, but March is not rainy season. Also, this deluge had gone on for hours, not the more usual 20 minutes.

Before returning to grad school I spent four years working as a dive instructor: one year in Australia, and another three in Thailand. Daily diving left me continually shocked by how quickly overfishing and bleaching could devastate dive sites . Those constant environmental depredations formed a dull buzzing in the back of my mind. Something needed to be done about these ever present environmental issues. The proverbial straw (to break the camel’s back) came with the 2011 Koh Tao floods.

I left my apartment just after 6am, so I could help prep the dive boat. I was supposed to be completing the last two dives on an Open Water course. P’Dang, my landlady, had just finished orchestrating her army of relatives. Surveying the sandbag barrier, she commented “in 20 years I’ve never seen rain this bad.” Looking into the main road I saw two inches of water flowing downhill toward town. Coconuts, fist-sized rocks, and palm fronds swept past.

I decided to leave my motorcycle at home and walk to work. I was glad of that decision when I reached this intersection:


This video is from November and shows a mild flood typical of the rainy season. What I passed through was a surging brown mess that went past my knees. Being familiar with the lack of sewage treatment on the island, I resolved not to think too much about what was in the water. I just hoped I wouldn’t get bludgeoned with a boulder, or bitten by a sewage-mutated python, as I crossed the river.

The water went up to hip height as I got closer to work. I knew the situation was bad when I saw 7-11 was closed. 7-11 never closes.

Big Blue, the dive school where I worked suffered the worst of the flooding. All the water coming down from the mountain and through town, was funneled through the center of the resort. This video was taken several days after the flood.



That video shows Big Blue after a team of dive instructors, divemasters, and a backhoe spent 3 days digging away sand, and hauling sandbags. Several brave people even jumped into the sewage channel and dug away at debris to restore the flow.


Big Blue before the staff cleanup.

Big Blue before the staff cleanup.


That first day Big Blue was too flooded to get down to the beach, so I waded through the neighboring resort to reach the beach. Seawater was brown for 200 meters offshore. Half the longtail boats had sunk. Every fishing boat in the gulf was anchored in the shelter off Sairee Beach. No one was going diving that day.

On the walk back home I found one open bakery. Not knowing when any of the other shops would open I stocked up on sandwiches, pastries, and bottled water.

Over the next four days the water stayed rough enough to shut down all ferries. Upon entering a restaurant I got into the habit of asking if they were short on any food.
“We have all food, order whatever you want.”
“Okay, I’ll have the kieow wan gai.”
“Cannot. We do not have chicken.”
“So can I get that with pork?”
“Cannot. No green curry.”
“How about massaman with vegetables?”
“So what do you have?”
“French fries.”

Generators provide the majority of Koh Tao’s power. Two days post-flood fuel was in short supply, so we began experiencing routine power cuts.

After four days the Royal Thai Navy sent their only aircraft carrier to Koh Tao to evacuate tourists. Koh Tao is too small for the massive ship to dock anywhere on the island, so people were ferried over on a combination of longtails and helicopters.

Ferries resumed service the same day as the evacuation. Given the choice between an uncomfortable and lengthy — but free — ride on a helicopter and aircraft carrier, or a 400 baht ferry ticket, the backpackers populating Koh Tao chose the aircraft carrier. Evacuation by the Royal Thai Navy makes a better travel story, and will immensely up one’s backpacker cred.


Big Blue one day after the flooding, before the staff cleanup.

Big Blue one day after the flooding.


Realistically, the flood only caused minor discomfort in my life. Other than loosing a few days of work I was unhurt, my house was untouched, and I can deal with power outages.

In other areas people died. Homes were lost to landslides. Four days without ferries means four days lost tourism and lost income for people who need it far more desperately than me. The impact went beyond the five days. People cancelled trips to Thailand because of weather concerns. For many the flood damage was so bad they lost their businesses and were unable to rebuild.

The flood was environmentally disastrous as well. Silt, sewage, and debris were washed into the ocean. Silt and sewage are a recipe for smothering coral. Debris ranged from litter to motorcycles.

This video is from taken during a helicopter evacuation — four days after the flood. Starting at about one minute in you can see the brown ring of sewage and debris runoff surrounding the island.


Regardless of whether climate change caused these strong rains, one cannot deny that poorly planed development was responsible for most the devastation (this is especially evident if you check out the last video).

Personally, I believe that climate change played a role in the strength of this storm. However, even deniers must admit that shoddy infrastructure and poorly planned development was responsible for the extensive devastation, both human and environmental. I came back to school so I could help people improve their lives through development and conservation; I think, with hard work, those two ideals can go together.


1 Comment

  1. Tawnee
    Sep 24, 2013

    Incredible story and footage, Anna. Thanks for including so many videos… seeing the damage through film really brings to life the narrative of your own personal experiences there. I think the scale of this kind of natural destruction can be so difficult for folks who weren’t there to comprehend, and stories like this can absolutely help to open people’s eyes. I’m looking forward to more of your richly informative posts throughout this year!

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