"Michael, did you hear the news?" My friend Aidos sounded panicked on the phone. He had called a couple hours earlier to say we were invited to a forum the next day. Maybe he was calling to say it was canceled. But it was aleady 12:30 at night. Something didn't seem right.
"No, what happened?"
"The dam in Kyrgyzstan. It broke. They broke it. And now the river is coming to Taraz. The whole city is leaving. There are going to be big floods like in Almaty. I thought you should know."
"Uh… Thanks. Bye. Good luck."
What? Taraz is going to be flooded? The Talas River that I just tubed down a few days ago with Brad will now flood the entire city of Taraz? I don't buy it. But when you hear news like that, you can't immediately discredit it. Of course, the skeptic is always the first guy to go in the disaster movies. You know the one that didn't believe the warnings with the cocky attitude. And bam! Earthquake and he falls down a crack. Or pre-meteor hits right where he's standing. So I figure I have to check it out somehow.
Being American, I turn on the TV and check the local channels. Any news about impending floods and disaster? Nope. Just a concert on the Kazakhstan Taraz channel. News channels are from Moscow, and they are all covering financial stuff. Seems like something would be on there.
Of course, Peace Corps has a safety officer, but I don't want to wake her up at 12:30 for something like this. I call Aidos back.
"Aidos, where exactly did you hear this information?"
"Everyone is outside in the streets. Everyone knows. They're all getting out of the city to go to the villages. I can't find a taxi anywhere"
"Yeah, but I'm watching the TV right now. And there's nothing there."
"It was on the TV earlier."
"Okay. Good luck. Bye."
On the TV, but was interrupted for the more important Kazakh concert. Doubtful. Looks like its time to call Peace Corps.
"Hi. This is Michael Hotard in Taraz."
"So my friend called me and said that a dam broke in Kyrgyzstan and that Taraz is going to be swept away in a flood. Is that true?"
"What? Could you repeat that?"
"Yeah, my friend Aidos. He said that people blew up a dam in Kyrgyzstan. And now the Talas river is going to flood the entire city. Have you heard anything about that?"
"Where did he hear the information?"
"From everyone. Everyone outside told him."
"Uh… Okay…. I haven't heard anything about that yet. But I'll call to find out some more information."
So not a confirmed no, but that sure did sound crazy describing it on the phone. I fill up three jugs of water just in case. Then I hit the streets to find out what's what. I see two guys near the neighboring apartment building.
"Hi. You guys hear anything about this problem in Kyrgyzstan?"
"Yeah. That's why we're outside"
"Well, what do you think?"
"Don't know. (Then a word I didn't know. Seemed like this word was important for the conversation.)"
"Cool. (Not acknowledging I actually don't know what they just told me.)"
So it's true. Everyone outside does know about it. I'm out and about so I decide to get some cola. I ask the girl at the magazine if she knows about it.
"Well, do you think it's true."
"Probably. But what are we going to do about it. It's all in God's hands."
"But where did it start? Was it on TV? Where did you hear about it?"
"Everyone knows about it."
Well, at least that part seems true.
I decide to call my site mate Mark. It takes a few tries, but he finally answers.
"Mark, were you sleeping?"
"Did you hear that we are going to be washed away in a flood?"
"Well, I mean probably not. But everyone in Taraz thinks that right now. You can prepare and get swept up in the panic if you want. I called Alina, but I'm waiting for her to call back."
"Uh… thanks. I guess."
"No problem. G'night."
I feel like a good site mate. I always like to be included in mass social happenings. Even if there is no flood, he'll be ready for the water cooler gossip tomorrow morning.
By now, I've wandered back in my apartment and I've found that the other local channels are broadcasting the Man U game. Now I can understand them not interrupting that.
My phone rings. It's Alina.
"Hi, Michael. I talked to the Peace Corps branch in Bishkek. They have not heard anything about the dam. It is a rumor that is untrue and unconfirmed."
"Where did you hear about this again?"
"Everyone. Everyone in Taraz currently thinks that there will be a flood."
"It is not true. For now, stay in Taraz. I will call you if anything changes."
"That's what I thought. Thanks."
And that's where I am now. Sitting in my fourth-story apartment writing up this story. Even if there was a flood, I'm pretty sure I'd be okay. Four stories is really tall. And concrete buildings seem pretty secure. Plus, I got my four water jugs.
So why are so many people in a panic or accepting. Even the people I encountered that weren't leaving believed that there would be serious flooding. First is the recent news of flooding in Almaty. For those who don't follow Central Asian news, over 30 people died in floods near Kazakhstan's largest city. Whole villages were swept away, and thousands of livestock were killed as well. This rumor took advantage of the fears caused by that recent event.
Second, the news of Kyrgyzstan's revolution/war/conflict is real. Could the people really threaten to blow up the dam to get the government to do something? Maybe? Probably. Attacks on dams and bridges are, if not actually popular, at least thought to be popular.
Third, people here didn't seem to turn to the local news as a reliable resource. In America, that's the first place I turn. Tornado warnings, severe thunderstorm watches, flood watches. They always tell us that. I don't know if they do here, but that system doesn't seem to be in place.
Fourth, it was difficult to get any reliable information. I called the police number multiple times, and the lines were always busy. But that probably means a lot of people were calling the police lines. And that's good that people thought to go to a reliable source for information.
Fifth, maybe it could actually happen. (I'm adding this paragraph after the fact.) People are really convinced that the dam is KG is holding enough water to flood Taraz. In America, I'd search the Internet to find out the truth of such a claim. But here the information is in Russian, and may not be online. So I guess I have to believe people when they say it's possible.
Finally, people everywhere get in such panics no matter what authorities, the media, or rational sources say. I remember the gas lines that formed about once a year in Georgia when the rumors of gas shortages started happening. If any storm hit's the Gulf, people automatically line up despite the evidence always being against gas shortages. People get caught up in the panic.
Now, it's close to 2:00, and I just received another phone call.
"Hi, Michael." It's Aidos again. "What are you doing?"
"I'm just writing some on my computer. What's up?"
"They just said on the news that everything was okay. There's not a problem."
"Wow, they already repaired the dam?" But he didn't get the sarcasm.
"Just wanted to let you know."
"Thanks. See you tomorrow."
So I turn on the local channel, and bam, there are five people standing in a studio. They explain in Russian and Kazakh that there are no problems with the river, the dam, or the border right now. No one should panic or leave their house. Everything is okay. And then they immediately cut to the regular scheduled programming. And do not put any continuing news banner containing this information. Why? As in, if you happened to be in the bathroom, you would have never known. So had there actually been a problem, the showing of a Kazkah concert without a scrolling news banner may have still occurred. Awesome.
Just as I was about to finish this long blog, my phone rings again. It's Alina.
"Hi, Michael. I just wanted to let you know I followed up on the rumor. I talked wit the oblast police and department for emergencies. They said many people had heard a rumor about the dams and had voluntarily evacuated themselves. However, it is not true." (What? How did she get through? Not fair.)
"Yeah, I just saw that on the news. But thanks for calling back."
"It sounded pretty developed to have affected such a large percent of the population. Anyway, good night."
"Thanks, good night."
And then my phone rings again. It's Alina.
"Hi, Michael. I just thought about Mark. Did you talk to him at all?"
"Yeah, I called him earlier. Do you want me to call him back?"
"No, I'll call him now. Good night."
For now no floods. No problems. And although I am about ten kilometers away from a country in the midst of a revolution, I think the drunk locals on the street are still the biggest threat to my safety.