SEOUL — At 4.40pm Monday, the 13-year-old texted her 72-year-old grandmother who was in hospital, wishing her luck and saying she was praying for her speedy recovery.
“How nice of you, my little pup!” the grandmother replied by text message.
It was the last time she spoke with her granddaughter.
Four hours later, floods triggered by one of South Korea’s heaviest rains rolled down the steps of the three-room semi-buried house in southern Seoul where the teenager had lived with her mother, 47. , and his aunt, 48 years old.
The family had moved into the house seven years ago. They knew the lower-lying district was prone to flooding, but it was cheap and close to a government welfare center where the aunt, who has Down’s syndrome, could get help.
Heavy rains that hit the Seoul metropolitan area from Monday to Wednesday morning left six missing and at least nine dead, including a family of three, highlighting the plight of the poor in South Korean cities as well as the crisis housing in the country and growing inequalities.
The water flowed with such force that the family was unable to open their only door, according to neighbors and emergency officials. The girl’s mother knocked on the door and called on her neighbors for help. Neighbors called the government’s 119 emergency hotline on the family’s behalf, but so many flood victims called that their calls were unsuccessful.
Two local men tried to save the family through the window of the house at street level, but they were unable to get through the steel anti-theft grating that blocked the window. “The water filled the house so quickly that we couldn’t do anything about it,” neighbor Jeon Ye-sung, 52, told reporters.
Mr Jeon rushed home on Monday night after his daughter told him on the phone that water was pouring out the windows in their own half-buried house. He broke the windows to save his three daughters. But he and another neighbor could not reach his neighbors.
By the time rescue officials pumped out the water early on Tuesday, they found the families of three dead.
The urban poor in South Korea often live in banjiha, or half-buried houses. The risk of these underground houses flooding was dramatically portrayed in the South Korean film “Parasite,” which became the first foreign-language film to win the Best Picture Oscar of 2020.
One of the nine dead was a woman in her 50s who also lived in a half-buried house in Seoul. She fled the floodwaters but returned home to save her cat and did not make it out alive.
In Seoul, a city where sky-high housing prices are one of the biggest political problems, living high and dry in tall apartment buildings built by the country’s conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai is a status symbol.
But the poor often live in cheap, damp and moldy housing banjiha. Hundreds of thousands of people live in such homes in the congested metropolitan area, where they struggle to find jobs, save money and educate their children to overcome growing inequality.
Over the years, Seoul has offered to help people living in these basement apartments, providing them with pumps and other equipment to fight the floods. He also renovated sewer systems in low-lying neighborhoods to help drain rainwater faster. The government has urged those living in half-buried basements to move to state-owned flats with cheap rents.
Yet thousands of families live in banjiha, fearing floods every monsoon season. They build small dykes with sandbags around their houses. When the floodwaters recede, they put their clothes and furniture out to dry in the alleys. In a 2020 survey, more than half of 500 semi-buried households in two districts in Siheung, just southwest of Seoul, said their homes were submerged in rainwater.
“When I came home from work, I found my banjiha underwater,” a half-buried resident wrote on South Korean web portal Naver on Tuesday. “It was like heaven had crashed down on me.”
On Tuesday, when President Yoon Suk-yeol visited the neighborhood where the family of three died, their house was still waist-deep in floodwater. Pillows, furniture and plastic bags floated inside. Mr. Yoon had to crouch on the street outside to look into the house through the window at street level.
The neighborhood was littered with rain-damaged trash bags, furniture and electronics that families dragged out of their basement homes. “There’s hardly anything we can salvage,” said Park Kyong-ja, 77, who has lived in the neighborhood for 26 years.
Choi Tae-young, the head of the Seoul Metropolitan Fire and Disaster Headquarters, blamed floodwaters for blocking the door to the family home. But neighbors have accused the government of failing to alert residents of the coming floods. The city did not warn of the danger of an overflow from a nearby creek until 9:21 p.m. Monday, according to local media and neighbors.
From inside their home, the family of three called neighbors between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., asking for help as they could not get out. The teen’s mother, who was only identified by police and local media by her last name, Hong, also called her mother at the hospital at 8:37 p.m., saying she could not open the door. gate due to floodwaters, according to the JoongAng Ilbo daily.
“When I came out and rushed to their house, it was already full of water and I couldn’t see inside,” neighbor Kim In-sook told reporters. Police and firefighters were only able to pump out the water a few hours later.
Hong Seok-cheol, 46, who lives in a half-buried house next door, left at 7:45 p.m. Monday to eat at a restaurant with his wife. When the couple returned home 40 minutes later, they were shocked to find the alley was flooded. Their house was filled with water.
“The rain fell so fast and furiously and the pressure on the underground drainage pipes was so great that they burst, making the flooding worse,” Hong said. “There was no way my wife and I could have figured out if we had been trapped inside.”
Some of the household items belonging to the family of three were outside the four-story building on Wednesday, including a white teddy bear. In the underground garage, four cars were covered in mud.
“The torrential rains were the worst in 115 years,” Mr. Yoon, the president, said during a meeting with emergency response officials on Wednesday. “The poor and weak are more vulnerable to natural disasters. Our country will become safe when they feel safe.