‘Devil’ typhoon leaves Taiwan reeling
Time is running out to save people who remain stranded, officials warn
In the hectic corridors of Qishan High School – the centre of rescue operations in the area worst affected by Typhoon Morakot – the sound of helicopters landing and taking off every few minutes roars through the air.
Family members of those missing and possibly buried by massive mudslides create a constant hum as they discuss what the situation might be like in the cut-off villages and complain that not enough is being done and not quickly enough.
Hundreds of people feared buried by mudslides in the south of the country have been found alive.
Dozens of charity workers busy themselves unloading boxes of water, bread and other food, offering them to everyone.
But for a few minutes this week, a calm descended on the school as blue-robed volunteers from the Buddhist-based charity Tzu Chu Foundation led family members in a soothing Buddhist chant.
Some of those joining the prayer song wiped tears from their face, others stared blankly at the field where the helicopters land.
United in the hope that their parents, children and other loved ones will be found alive, but also in fear they would not, dozens prayed together.
Taiwan, which gets about a dozen typhoons during this time of the year, had got used to the storms formed in the Pacific. Even during some very strong ones, people would still go out to the underground malls or department stores.
But this one caught everyone by surprise.
Nicknamed by some local residents as "Devil typhoon", Morakot wasn’t actually a strong typhoon, but it stayed longer than usual – three to four days.
And in just four days, it dumped more than half the average annual rainfall in many places in Taiwan, two-thirds in the worst affected areas. This caused major mudslides and flooding.
"My two children and my mother-in-law are still in the village. I haven’t been able to contact them," said a woman sobbing as several charity workers stood by trying to comforting her.
Bodies washed downstream have begun to surface on shallow river beds and in nearby towns. In Qishan, at least two female bodies have been found.
"The bodies had no clothes because rock and wood ripped them off as they flowed downstream," said local police officer Wang Tsao-hong, quietly adding that a foot was also found.
Slow rescue process
Recovery efforts have not started yet. The authorities are still trying to get people out of villages cut off by washed-out roads or bridges.
As of early Friday, there were still about 1,000 people stranded, while more than 15,400 had been evacuated since the typhoon hit exactly a week ago.
More could be stranded but not yet known by the authorities, as damaged roads make assessments difficult.
Local TV stations hiking in to affected areas reached one stranded woman, who cried that the food in her fridge was nearly gone. She said her village has not had any food dropped off by helicopters yet, worrying how they would survive.
Bad weather has caused several helicopter missions to be suspended. Missing roads have made the rescue process slow and dependent on helicopters which can only bring out a few people at a time.
The areas affected are inhabited by members of Taiwan’s indigenous people.
They are Austronesians related in language and heritage to indigenous people in the South Pacific and parts of south-east Asia.
Indigenous people are also some of the poorest in Taiwan, with shorter life expectancy and higher unemployment than the national average.
Many of the working-age people had gone to the cities to find work, leaving behind mostly elderly people and young children.
Residents of this remote, rural farming region have long felt neglected by the government, which they claim has allotted more funding and resources to the north.
"Why is the government always saying useless things? What if the flooding happened in Taipei?" a local TV station showed one woman saying. Her family was stranded in a village that she said had not had any food airdropped by helicopters.
Time is running out. Even as rescue efforts are in full force, some riverbanks – whose soil has been weakened by the rain – are breaking, causing panic that the stranded people could be washed away.
Emotions are also running high as relatives lose patience.
One man tried to force his way onto a helicopter while others held up signs demanding to be allowed inside villages to dig for their loved ones, even if they have to do it with their bare hands.
Others shouted down officials at a meeting in a townhall.
Tough questions are being asked – why didn’t the government give people sufficient warning? Why weren’t people evacuated? Why were people allowed to build and farm on dangerous foothills?
"Unlike an earthquake, this is predictable. You know it is coming!" said local resident Lin Jin-hsiung.
"If you feel the lives of people are important, then you should have prepared in advance to prevent such a disaster."
But officials said they could not have predicted the power of Morakot because it was unusual due to its long stay and record rainfalls.
"This area is the first time in many years, that’s why they were not prepared. If they had been prepared, they should have been evacuated," President Ma Ying-jeou told reporters during a visit to the disaster area this week.
But he added:"This is a very serious situation. In spite of all these difficulties, we will do everything we can to rescue them."
Officials hope to bring out the remaining survivors still stranded. If no more survivors are found, the grim task of recovering bodies will be the next focus.
More than 1,400 body bags have been prepared, Liang Shi-cha, a spokesman for the National Disaster Relief Centre, told the BBC.
But he said that should not be seen as an indication the government believed that many people have died.
However, he added that "the chances of survival are slim," given that the major mudslides occurred five days ago.
He, President Ma and other officials have said the death toll could be in the hundreds.
Regardless, the recovery process promises to bring more anger and tears.
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