Fri, Sep 02, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Learning respect for typhoons

And so Typhoon Talim staggers into China after running into the faithful brick wall that is the Central Mountain Range. It left Taiwan behind with a very low death toll, so low that lives were probably saved because motorists stayed home -- instead of adding to the daily carnage on the nation's roads.

Talim and Typhoon Haitang were the first super typhoons in five years to menace this country, perhaps an indication that Taiwan has had a fairly easy run of things recently, notwithstanding the deaths, destruction and financial losses caused by flooding and landslides in other storms in the interim. But if global-warming theorists are on the right track, such storms will likely increase in size and frequency.

The flooding of New Orleans offers a reminder of how much worse things could be if storms maintain a higher degree of violence as they make landfall. Granted, the geographical differences between the Mississippi Delta and Taiwan's mountainous buffer are so stark that they barely rate a mention, but there remain lessons that disaster-management officials and the general public can heed from the misfortune of communities along the Gulf Coast.

Take, for example, complacency and recklessness. US officials have speculated that many residents ignored mandatory evacuation orders because previous evacuations seemed pointless, resulting in a kind of "cry wolf" effect that put thousands of people in mortal danger. Others were simply ignorant of the power of winds and storm surges that could tear buildings off their foundations and drown them inside their homes.

In Taiwan, there is a long history of typhoon complacency -- from the stupidity of floodgate supervisors to home and store owners who fail to secure loose, sharp objects that could become lethal missiles in a powerful gust. For recklessness, one need only witness that species of motorscooter rider that battles winds amid falling debris every time a typhoon strikes.

Such problems are best addressed by reminding people that there is wisdom in caution, and by tightening discipline on the part of government and the police, which happily is more evident in Taipei City than earlier in Mayor Ma Ying-jeou's (馬英九) tenure.

The problem with evacuation, however, is that unlike Americans, Taiwanese have few places to run. Yet, in the event of a catastrophic typhoon, there is clearly room for improvement in preventative measures. Parts of the Lanyang Basin (蘭陽), for example, which are home to most of Ilan County's population, are vulnerable to flooding and storm surges. The four-lane Taipei-Ilan Freeway, due to open at the end of the year, could greatly facilitate evacuations to the west coast in the event of a disastrous storm in the area; it is hoped that such a strategy might be part of a more sober analysis of long-term disaster risk -- and the development of contingency measures that do not wait until the day before landfall before coming into effect.

The comforting thing is that, unlike in the US, people in this country rarely prey on each other in the wake of natural disasters. If this level of civility can translate into a more circumspect attitude to the inevitability of severe weather, then there is no reason that death tolls cannot be kept low.

During a natural disaster, there are times for education and for intervention. All that remains is recognizing which is required at a given time, and having the confidence to stand by decision-making processes that occasionally err on the side of caution.

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