Seoul: Years before the epic breakdown of this month's 25th World Scout Jamboree in South Korea, event organizers warned of extreme heat as a major red flag.
"There is a high possibility that the [jamboree] event in August can be hit by an extreme heat of 36C [96.8 degrees] and a typhoon," the South Korean organizers wrote in a 2018 internal report. But they had a plan: "By 2023, we will grow a lush green forest at the jamboree site," to cool down the camping grounds with shades, they claimed.
After all, the Scout motto is "be prepared."
But when tens of thousands of teenage campers arrived last week in the sweltering August sun, no such forest existed. In fact, the preparations for the jamboree, which began Aug. 1, were so inadequate that hundreds of Scouts fell ill. More than 138 were hospitalized with heat-related symptoms and hundreds more were treated on-site.
The lack of shade and multiple other problems at the campsite, at Saemangeum on the southwest coast, led several countries to pull thousands of teens out of the event within days and relocate them to safer ground.
South Korean officials failed to prepare for extreme weather they had foreseen from the early days in 2016 of planning for the quadrennial international event, according to a Washington Post review of internal planning reports.
The country's top minister in charge of the event - who claimed last year that the organizers had "set up thorough measures" for all potential weather concerns - admitted this week to a "lack of preparation at the beginning."
But "the situation has improved a lot since then," Gender Equality and Family Minister Kim Hyun-sook said Monday.
The condition of the event site, on land reclaimed from tidelands, was a far cry from the initial plan to prepare for natural disasters. Organizers' plans to plant trees fell through because the soil's high concentration of salt was not suited for planting. And following July's downpour, it had turned into a swamp with a mosquito infestation.
South Korea's summers can be temperamental, ricocheting between downpours and sweltering humidity. Heat wave warnings had been issued across the country for several weeks, as the rainy season was expected to end and the sticky season to begin.
There were reports of heatstroke patients around the area by July 30. By the time the jamboree opened two days later, some 400 people on-site fell ill with heat-related symptoms.
Organizers set up extra outdoor shades and sent in medical support, but it wasn't enough. Parents from around the world began complaining about their children falling ill from the heat, the lack of shower and toilet facilities, unsanitary conditions and insufficient catering for dietary requirements.
It wasn't until Aug. 4 that South Korean officials took action to significantly cool the site. President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered an "unlimited supply" of air-conditioned buses and water trucks to be sent to the site. He also approved millions of dollars in emergency funds for additional equipment and support.
The country's military was mobilized to build extra shades, showers and other facilities. But it was too late. Despite last-minute efforts to salvage the jamboree, the world scouting body announced an early withdrawal from the coastal campsite on Monday due to an incoming typhoon, since downgraded to a tropical storm.
By then, the British contingent, the biggest with 4,500 participants, had decamped to hotels in Seoul. The 1,500 Americans were moved to the Pyeongtaek military base near the capital.
"A 100 percent nightmare," Kristin Sayers, mother of an American Scout at the event, told Al Jazeera. "The living conditions, the disorganization, has just crushed him and he's crushed with having to live for the next week on an army base."
The jamboree, with 45,000 Scouts and instructors on-site, amounted to a small town popping up for a 12-day period, said Kim Dong-hun, a crisis management expert. "The organizers should have set up safety and hygiene measures appropriate for the scale of the event."
About $30 million, or one-third of the total project cost, went toward infrastructure projects, including water supply, sewage treatment, showers and water fountains, budget records show. The event is set to incur at least $5.2 million more in emergency costs spent this month.
"In reports and various other ways, we were warned about the need for measures against the heat, and we had plans to install shades and plant trees, but our efforts were insufficient," said an official with the event, who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The official said there were also several delays in the preparations ahead of the event, including getting necessary budget approvals.
While the South Korean government officially designated heat waves as a disaster in 2018, many officials still view them as a typical summertime event and failed to set up "disaster prevention-level" measures, said Kim. "The authorities still do not take heat as a serious enough threat."
Song Chang-young, an expert in disaster-resilient architecture at Gwangju University, not far from the jamboree site, said many issues at the campsite were predictable given the characteristics of the Saemangeum reclaimed-land project. For example, the fact that the soil is inhospitable to tree-planting is well-established, according to Song.
"Given the low water permeability of the reclaimed coastal land, the campsite should have been designed with a much better drainage system to prevent flooding," Song said.
In fact, organizers predicted many of the challenges from the very start.
Three planning reports prepared between 2016 and 2018 for the World Scout Jamboree warned of extreme heat as one of the biggest threats to a successful event, alongside typhoons and military aggression from North Korea.
Event planners pointed to lessons learned from the 2015 World Scout Jamboree in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan, held in 104-degree Fahrenheit (40 Celsius) temperatures with about 80 percent humidity, leading to thousands of participants experiencing heat exhaustion.
The reports emphasized the need for organizers to take proactive steps for weather as hot as 96 degrees Fahrenheit (36 Celsius) or higher, and a typhoon. Two of the reports were prepared by the host government agencies and one was a feasibility study by the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, the national government-funded economic policy think tank.
"Most importantly, the heat wave is the most severe on the Korean Peninsula and natural disasters such as typhoons and heavy rains are likely to occur during the period from Aug. 1 to 12, 2023, when the 2023 World Jamboree will be held," read the 2016 feasibility study, commissioned by host Jeolla Province. "Thorough preparations for disaster prevention and response are in preparation for this."
They also pointed to their progress in overcoming structural challenges posed by the Saemangeum site, located in former coastlands of North Jeolla Province, South Korea's agricultural breadbasket located along the west coast of the country.
As a part of its bid package, planners vowed to show "Saemangeum is no longer submerged in water, and is instead a vast land with mountains, fields, grasslands and a disaster management information system . . . that is equipped to handle more than 50,000 jamboree participants to evacuate in case of emergency," according to a 2018 report.
On Aug. 1, the first day of the jamboree, the South Korean government issued a "serious" heat warning, the highest designation, for the first time in four years. Across the country, temperatures were topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius), but it felt suffocating because of high humidity levels.
Yet organizers did not issue similar designations, even though their internal natural disaster response manual guided them to do so under extreme heat. Such designations would have prompted emergency support and resources, or led them to evacuate people, according to the manual obtained by The Post.
A jamboree official told Jeonju MBC broadcaster, which first reported on the manual in detail, that officials retained authority to designate warning levels as they see fit, and did not find it necessary at the time.
"If you go by the manual, all activities would be stopped," the official was quoted as telling Jeonju MBC. "If all these students' activities are stopped, where are they supposed to go?"