It is now a week since Typhoon Morakot struck Taiwan. Amid growing public anger, the government is struggling to demonstrate that it can handle this crisis and its formidable ramifications.
Even now, thousands of people remain trapped in mountain villages — running out of food and running out of time. The risk of disease is growing. Official rescue efforts, including military helicopters and special squads on the ground, are finally beginning to resemble an operation that reflects a disaster of this enormity.
But it remains a mystery how a government with one of the most combat-ready militaries in the world at its disposal can allow so many people to be in harm’s way for so long.
Stricken areas in the central and southern mountains are now even more vulnerable to flash flooding and mudslides given the massive damage inflicted on mountain topography. The volume of debris thrown downstream — violently widening and raising river beds, in places forming dams — and the collapse of natural water retention mechanisms in catchment areas mean the risk of severe flooding has increased in the short term, hampering reconstruction efforts and forcing governments to reassess the viability of dozens of communities.
It would be preferable to say that discussion of political fallout from this disaster should wait until all victims are out of harm’s way. The problem is that disarray in sections of the official rescue effort and the utter ineptitude of the government in communicating with the public demand accountability now.
This is not merely because natural justice demands swift action, but because replacing Premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) — whom the Disaster Prevention and Protection Act (災害防救法) authorizes to coordinate disaster relief, though this is barely perceptible in his behavior — and key ministers could fortify rescue missions and save lives.
Meanwhile, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) continues to display a stunning lack of leadership by trading in risible word games, insisting that he has not refused offers of material assistance from foreign governments. The fact is that his Presidential Office spokesman, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the military stated a few days ago that no assistance was required.
Ma’s sophistry comforts no one and solves nothing. The key here is not the letter of a law or the exactitude of public pronouncements, but whether the president and the Cabinet are utilizing resources competently and quickly and solving problems even as lives hang in the balance.
Now that the government has admitted to gaps in its disaster preparedness in requesting assistance from overseas, there is another issue that is worth considering.
Following the 921 Earthquake in 1999, US medical professionals studying the adequacy of the response identified a lack of central command, poor communication, lack of cooperation between the government and the military and various medical logistics problems as issues that demanded government attention.
Elsewhere, Taiwan’s Red Cross, in conjunction with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, spent three years developing a handbook and training manuals to improve and promote disaster response. The materials were bilingual and hundreds of copies were produced. But the program, which required ongoing training, allegedly floundered after a management change. The new team, according to a Red Cross report in May 2005, suffered from “limited upper management interest.”
The secretary-general of the new management team was Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌).
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