Page 2-   Taiwan's Typhoon Morakot- Update

Douglas Habecker,  August 20, 2009

(*Here's my second update on the aftermath of Typhoon Morakot, also attached.  Feel free to share it with anyone you may be interested.)
 

August 20, 2009

 

Hi Everyone,

 

It only aired a few times, but I thought it was truly one of the coolest local news clips I’ve ever seen on local TV: A handful of Taiwanese rescue/relief workers stand on a remote mountain valley road that the Typhoon Morakot landslides have severed.  As they study the damage and swollen waters raging below, they suddenly encounter a totally alien sight.  With a low, throbbing roar, an enormous grey US Navy MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter swoops low around a bend in the valley, almost at eye level, and blasts by, hauling a backhoe excavator in a sling underneath.  The chopper is gone in a few seconds as it heads towards a cut-off village further inland.

 

Although that scene from Tuesday was just one of hundreds airing nonstop in the continuing saga of the ‘8-8 flood disaster’ aftermath of Typhoon Morakot, it dramatically represented America’s unprecedented and much-reported arrival on the scene to assist with rescue and relief efforts.  This began at 2:45 p.m. Sunday afternoon (8/16) when a U.S. Marine KC-130J (the Marine version of the C-130 Hercules) transport landed at Tainan Air Force Base.  Flying in from Okinawa, the crew worked with Taiwanese ground personnel to quickly unload several large pallets containing 6,800 kilograms of plastic sheeting which can be used for temporary housing and other purposes.  As the media was quick to note, this was one of the first U.S. military aircraft to touch down in Taiwan since 1979 (excepting a USAF C-5 Galaxy which transported relief supplies following the 1999 ‘9-21’ earthquake).  However, Sunday’s flight and a second delivery the next day were followed on Monday afternoon by the arrival of the first Navy helicopter.  Based at Iwakuni , Japan , the Sikorsky Sea Dragons of the HM-14 ‘Vanguard’ squadron are the Western world’s largest helicopters and able to haul 16 tons of cargo.  By Tuesday, two MH-53Es and two smaller MH-60S Knighthawks (a version of the Blackhawk)—flying in from the “LPD” amphibious transport dock ship U.S.S. Denver, anchored in waters off of Tainan--were hauling excavators and other earthmoving equipment from Tainan Air Base to various hard-hit mountain villages, isolated by mudslides and flooding, as they landed in schoolyards and fields to drop their loads.  During this process, local TV crews filming American military ground personnel and cargo riggers at Tainan Air Base gave the GIs a crash course in Mandarin and filmed a repeatedly-broadcast scene that undoubtedly offered a bit of encouragement to hard-hit Taiwanese residents—a video montage of young American Marines and sailors—white, black, Hispanic, male and female—smiling into the camera and shouting “Taiwan Jia Yo!” (‘Go Taiwan !’).

 

These Americans, their aircraft and officials from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) continue to work alongside Taiwanese to provide relief in a gesture deeply meaningful to the island in an era when it is common to question the level of America’s commitment to Taiwan should a crisis arise.  However, this is not the only aid arriving from around the world, as a broad spectrum of supplies and assistance has poured in from many countries.  Even before the US arrived on the scene, Singapore , Israel , the UK and Australia rushed in supplies, such as Israeli water-purification kits.  Aussie officials were on hand to voice their support for Taiwan and oversaw the unloading of a variety of items, from 200,000 water-purification tablets to 100 sanitizer spray packs for spraying disinfectant and insect repellent.  Even Pope Benedict XVI has donated US$50,000 to the cause.  Not to be outdone by the United States , China , whose offer of Russian-built heavy-lift helicopters was declined in favor of the American choppers, flew an Air China 747 cargo load emergency supplies from Beijing into Kaohsiung International Airport and dispatched a ship with containers of prefab temporary housing units, which are now being erected in disaster areas.  Other items from China include 10,000 blankets and 10,000 sleeping bags.  Altogether, about 60 countries, from Thailand to Germany , have offered assistance to Taiwan . 

 

All these international efforts underline the continued tragedy of Taiwan ’s worst typhoon in half a century, which has indelibly altered certain parts of southern Taiwan .  Despite the fact that almost two weeks have elapsed since the disaster, the situation ranges from very difficult to dire for thousands of residents remaining in cut-off mountainous areas (including thousands in the Alishan area alone), for thousands more newly-homeless who have been evacuated with little more than the clothes on their backs, and for the tens of thousands who are enduring a painstaking clean-up of absolutely devastated homes and communities.  Hundreds of residents—notably Aborigines from Bunun, Paiwan, Rukai and other tribes—are steadfastly sticking it out in their villages, in some cases out of fear that they will lose their lands forever if evacuated.  Meanwhile, residents, soldiers and volunteers in towns across Pingtung county and similar areas are dealing with a soupy mud that has inundated absolutely everything inside and outside, to the point where it seems the only solution would be a giant, god-sized power hose.

 

Over the past week, one of the main focuses has continued to be the Kaohsiung county village of Xiaolin , which was wiped out by mudslides that buried hundreds of residents.  Grieving relatives—some who have made their way in to wail and burn incense over what is now a flat, featureless expanse of mud—have reached a near-consensus to leave the site undisturbed by large-scale excavation, as a giant grave of sorts.  However, Taiwanese soldiers have carried out a grisly manual search for bodies.  This entails digging with shovels and pausing to smell closely for the stench of decomposition, a technique which continues to provide its grim rewards.  Fortunately for these young servicemen and women—some reportedly traumatized by the experience—sniffer dogs and ground-penetrating radar equipment are assuming some of these responsibilities.  Dozens of other bodies have also been spotted and recovered in river beds nearby.  Quoted in the Taipei Times, Xiaolin Elementary School Principal Wang-chen noted that 57 out of 81 of his students were either dead or missing.  The toll was almost as bad at a small nearby junior high school.  “Words cannot express my shock, pain and sorrow over having lost two-thirds of my students, taken away by one storm,” said Wang.

 

Despite access into some areas by air or four-by-four vehicles, a surprising number of residents and rescue/relief personnel alike are still moving on foot, sometimes braving very dangerous river crossings, to get in and out of the worst-hit communities—places like Kaohsiung county’s Taoyuan and Hsinfa villages.  Island-wide donations of food, supplies, clothing and other items have poured in, to the point where relief organizations are trying to be more specific about what is still needed, or not needed.  An eclectic-sounding “want list” earlier in the week included brooms, dustbins, shovels, plastic pipes, undergarments, wash basins, walking canes, power lines, wireless base stations, and construction helmets.  Over the weekend, a Kaohsiung woman showed up at the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation with her 12-year-old daughter and a nine-kilogram piggy bank containing NT$160,000—accumulated by mom and daughter over 12 years for the girl’s dowry.  After seeing all those who had lost homes to flooding, the seventh grader asked her mother to donate the money to relief, and handed in another NT$500,000 they had collected from neighbors for the same cause.  A number of street vendors in Taichung and Changhua, including former victims of the 9-21 earthquake—have been donating all earnings from their “tsung yo bing” onion cakes and other traditional treats to typhoon survivors as well.  On a larger scale, central and northern Taiwan city and county governments are dispatching relief funds and personnel.  On Tuesday, for example, Taipei City Government announced that it would “adopt” Pingtung County ’s Linbian Township and take it in as a district to help with relief and reconstruction.  More than 400 Taipei city government staff, including 98 firefighters, are being stationed in the town for post-disaster reconstruction efforts, while each household needing assistance will receive NT$5,000.

 

Volunteers from all manner of organizations—local, international, Christian, Buddhist, etc.—are also heading into areas to provide a helping hand.  This has included the likes of movie star Jet Li, who turned up in a Kaohsiung county Aborigine village to help unload supplies, listen to villagers’ disaster stories and offer smiling encouragement.  Yesterday, the news even showed the rather bizarre sight of some American clowns—goofy noses, face paint and all—who were bringing cheer to displaced children, many who are showing signs of acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to mental health experts now working with kids throughout the disaster zone, using play and music therapy and other treatments.  A TV report today (Thursday) showed an absolutely adorable little Aborigine girl, probably around 2 years old, who has gone silent since her family fled their home during a mudslide, according to her mother.  Another poignant scene was a slightly-older tribal girl who was rescued by an air force helicopter with a couple relatives after spending eight days in the above-mentioned Taoyuan village with almost nothing to eat.  This girl also wouldn’t talk, but only because she was desperately gobbling bowls of fruit cocktail given to her by relief workers after landing.

 

The damage and losses caused by the typhoon and its aftermath are still being calculated but are enormous in some areas.  Agriculture losses alone are well over NT$12 billion, including the destruction of 138,000 pigs, almost 600,000 chickens, over 132,000 ducks and 27% of crops on 72,345 hectares of farmland.  Roads in many places will not be restored for months.  The highway to Alishan, for example, will be closed until Sept. 20 at the earliest and its famed narrow-gauge mountain railroad may be out of commission for two years.  Taiwan Rail’s southern link, connecting Kaohsiung and Taitung, will be closed for at least five months.  If all this wasn’t bad enough, the island was rocked by the year’s biggest earthquake—a 6.5 temblor located 187 kilometers southeast of Hualien—and a series of aftershocks on Monday morning.  Fortunately, no further damage was caused in the disaster region.

 

As all this goes on, President Ma Ying-jeou and his cabinet have received relentless criticism and anger from the press and public over what is perceived to be a very belated response to this disaster, a gross lack of coordination between government agencies in handling rescue and relief, and an unsympathetic, ambivalent attitude towards the suffering of victims.  Not a few commentators have labeled Typhoon Morakot “Ma Ying-jeou’s Katrina”, in reference to the devastating New Orleans hurricane.  With his popularity plummeting and reporters circling like sharks in feeding frenzy, Ma and his administration have been forced to repeatedly apologize and are now spending near all of their time in the disaster zone, inspecting efforts and being confronted by angry victims.  With resignations of several high-ranking officials in the wind, a complete cabinet reshuffle can also be expected in the near future.   

 

Nevertheless, what remains most striking about this tragedy is not the political turmoil and accusations, but the moving unity, fortitude and generosity by all involved in this chapter of Taiwan history.  In my first ‘8-8’ disaster update, I noted the moving scene of a lone policeman stranded on his police station roof, surrounded by a vast expanse of raging water.  More details of his story have emerged in a Taipei Times account (Aug. 18) as he rested from his ordeal:  As the storm began dumping rain on his village of Nansalu in Namasiya Township, officer Chang Hui-cheng persuaded area tourists to leave immediately, but had a harder time convincing local villagers, who said Jesus Christ would protect them.  After the evacuation, he was trying to rest when waters broke through the first-floor windows on his police station.  He ran to the third-floor roof and huddled in his raincoat, hanging onto a steel beam to keep from being swept away.  Thus he stayed for four days, drinking only rainwater but not losing hope.  Chang said he prayed continuously to God, asking that flood waters would not collapse the building.  “Aside from God, there was nobody I could ask for help when I was trapped,” he said.  Then he saw a helicopter fly by and waved it down with a red cloth.  At almost the exact same time, his wife, children and some villagers were also airlifted to safety from another location.  According to Chang, who earlier decided to retire, his first job after leaving the police force will be rebuilding his home.

 

“People are still missing and the death toll is rising. Hearts are broken, anger and frustration pour out in tears…” wrote a local commentator Huang Yu-wen on Thursday. “Yet Taiwan will not lose its determination.  It will be hopeful and brave….As a Taiwanese, I have never felt so proud and so touched.  We have a brilliant people – brave, generous, independent and full of sympathy.”  I think that sums it up pretty well.

 

If you’re looking for involved relief organizations to contact, there are a number of options, starting with World Vision and the Chinese Christian Relief Association.  The victims of Typhoon Morakot will need the help and prayers of people from around Taiwan and the world for a long time to come, as they face months and years of recovery, reconstruction and remembrance. 

 

Signing off for now,

Doug Habecker

 

 

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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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