Typhoon Morakot brought more than 2,000mm of rain in several places and the worst flooding in the south in 50 years. Many roads and bridges were destroyed and houses flooded, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people.
While the main reason for the disaster was the enormous rainfall, it is clear that government preparations, public construction and emergency response abilities leave much to be desired. This is nothing new. Despite decades of having to deal with typhoons and flooding, it appears the government’s institutional ability to handle such problems is as water-logged as the homes in Pingtung. There are three clear shortcomings that need to be rectified and quickly.
First, the Central Weather Bureau’s (CWB) forecasting must be improved. The bureau issued a warning on Thursday for torrential rain in the areas north of Chiayi. The hardest hit areas, however, turned out to be Kaohsiung and Pingtung counties, while Taipei and Taichung saw just light winds and moderate rainfall. The original estimates said Kaohsiung and Pingtung would receive about 300mm of rain, but as soon as the typhoon reached Taiwan, this was adjusted upward several times, to more than 2,000mm. Nevertheless, southern residents lost precious preparation time.
When the bureau misjudged Typhoon Kalmaegi in July last year, it was criticized by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and received a warning from the Control Yuan. Morakot has highlighted the bureau’s inadequacies once again. However, as Kao Chia-Chuen (高家俊) pointed out in his opinion piece last year (“Accurate forecasting takes money,” July 30, 2008, page 8), budget constraints have left the bureau without any sea-based observation platforms to monitor typhoons. If more money is needed to improve the storm forecasting, the government and the legislature must ensure such monies are found.
The government has initiated several flood prevention projects in the past few years, investing more than NT$80 billion during Frank Hsieh’s (謝長廷) term as premier, and Premier Liu Chao-shiuan’s (劉兆玄) Cabinet approved several bridge maintenance projects in its economic booster scheme.
Morakot’s onslaught, however, highlighted the inefficiency and slow implementation of these projects. The flood-prevention portion of the many river dredging projects in central and southern Taiwan have not gone far enough, the subcontracting process is too slow and quality controls are too lax. It’s not so much that these projects can’t stop flooding, but rather that they were only half finished when the flooding began and then the floodwaters either damaged whatever progress has been made or washed it away.
There have also been serious communication problems. Mobilization and direction was too slow, leaving residents nowhere to turn for help. Although government disaster prevention centers have been established at both the national and local levels, there were many complaints that the centers’ telephone numbers didn’t work. People were forced to rely on TV talk show call-in lines instead of the government’s rescue hotlines.
When the government was asked to deploy disaster relief teams after the typhoon struck, the response was slow; the army was not mobilized until Saturday, thus extending the suffering of many people. The disaster centers’ ability to coordinate resources and manpower showed great shortcomings, and communication between the local and central levels was ineffective, and was subsequently criticized by the premier. For example, in Pingtung County a request for rubber boats was reported as a need for vehicles.