Taiwan's Typhoon Morakot

Douglas Habecker,  August 14, 2009

Hi Everyone,
I don't know if you've been following the news out of Taiwan, but this Typhoon Morakot disaster--now referred to as the "8-8 Flood Disaster"--just keeps getting worse, after dumping the heaviest rainfall on Taiwan in half a century--about 2.5 meters (9 feet).  Coincidentally, the last storm this bad came almost 50 years earlier to the day--Aug. 7, 1959 in what had been referred to as the "8-7 flood disaster".  Today, President Ma Ying-jeou said that at least 500 people may be dead, which isn't surprising, given the fact that hundreds of people are unaccounted for in dozens of mountain towns and villages, from as far north as Taoyuan but mainly in Nantou, Yunlin, Chiayi, Tainan, Kaohsiung, Pingtung and Taitung counties.  The attention has focused on one Kaohsiung county village, Xiaolin, in particularly, where about 160 homes were completely wiped out by two mudslides that hit from opposite sides of a valley, leaving only 2 houses in the entire village standing.  The valley is under about five stories of mud now.  In many places elsewhere, the roads are completely gone, leaving places only accessible by helicopter.  One image being repeated on local news since yesterday is a makeshift sign erected by cut-off villagers on the far side of destroyed mountain bridge that simply reads "32 dead. SOS".  Even Alishan is completely cut off and the Highway Bureau says it will be at least mid-October before the road can be rebuilt.  The southern link rail system between Kaohsiung and Taitung will be down at least 5 months, they say.  Even in lower-lying towns where clean-up has begun, the task is daunting with roads and homes alike filled with glue-like mud and littered with piles of furniture, household possessions, even buses, lying like discarded toys after being pushed there by flood waters. 
This really reminds me of the 9-21 earthquake in many ways, although the storm has alread surpassed the quake in some ways--destroying more bridges, for example (total at least 21).  The whole island is coming together to provide supplies, volunteers and relief for victims and hard-hit areas.  Still, everything's still a bit chaotic and the government is being criticized for what is perceived to be its slow and unorganized response.  The military has deployed thousands of soldiers and a lot of its helicopters, but there don't seem to be enough, as so many communities are without proper food and supplies.  Air Force Blackhawks, Army Hueys and Chinooks, and police choppers and their crews have been working non-stop, dropping supplies and evacuating people.  The island has three posthumous heroes after a National Airborne Services Corp Huey and its crew crashed into a narrow mountain valley near a Rukai aboriginal village, whose villagers gathered to hold a prayer service for the men as their bodies were being recovered.  The three veteran crew members, who had previously won recognition for their work in other disasters, had been working without much food or sleep in the first desperate days of the storm when they went down.  A number of Aborigine rescue crew members and rangers are also being praised for their extraordinary physical achievements and bravery in reaching cut-off villages through near-impossible terrain.  Now, Taiwan is asking foreign countries for assistance, including rescue teams and heavy-lift helicopters to get supplies and earth-moving equipment into mountain areas.  More mundane things that are being asked for include chlorine tablets.  It will be interesting to see if anyone, such as the U.S. government/military, responds.  Singapore was the first nation to come through with aid and Hong Kong just pledged US$50 million. 
The disaster certainly is getting quite a bit of international attention.  CNN has a couple of their international correspondents covering the story here and BBC is giving it a fair amount of press.  The local and international media have broadcast a number of striking images, starting with the high-rise hotel in Taitung's Chih-pen hot springs area toppling over into a river.  Much more human images show weeping relatives begging rescuers to get their family members in mountain communities; orphaned children who are the only survivors in their immediate families; elderly men and women who have lost their homes and everything.  A teenaged boy begged his dead grandmother for forgiveness--he was cooking her dinner when a wall of mud came through one side of the house, leaving him to barely escape alive as she was buried.  One little elementary girl who has lost everything said that the thing she hopes for the most is to be able to go to school again (hers was destroyed).  Some Taipei schools have already said that they would be open for disaster victim children, even as the government and NGOs try to figure out housing for so many homeless.  I think one of the most moving images is that of a single man, standing alone on in the driving rain on top of a lonely two-story police station in a mountain valley that has been completely inundated by raging flood waters for hundreds of meters around, with nothing and no one in sight.  Fortunately, the man--an Aborigine police officer--was later plucked off the roof by a chopper.
If you're interested in finding more news, you can log onto the Taipei Times or China Post websites, which are full of stories.  Various media websites (including CNN's) have links to a number of international relief agencies that are accepting donations for this disaster relief.  Hopefully, the situation will improve in the days and weeks ahead, but it will take many months, perhaps years, before life returns to anything resembling normalcy for many victims of Typhoon Morakot.


Douglas Habecker is a journalist, living in Taichung, Taiwan.  He graduated from Morrison Academy in Taichung in 1985 and received a degree in Journalism from Messiah College.  He publishes Compass Magazine, which is a "What's Happening" periodical for the major cities of Taiwan.  He also maintains the website, http://taiwanfun.com/ , which complements his magazine.  Doug is the journalism teacher at Morrison Academy.  Active in Taichung affairs, Habecker has served as consultant in various local government programs as well as to foreign corporations doing business in the area.

Doug Habecker: doughabecker@yahoo.com



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