Typhoon Morakot struck the south on Aug. 8, Father’s Day, causing severe damage and a death toll probably numbering in the hundreds. Mountainous areas were especially hard hit, with mudslides devastating entire villages, such as Xiaolin Village (小林) in Jiaxian Township (甲仙), Kaohsiung County.
The number of people confirmed missing or dead continues to rise. Areas that flooded are covered by tonnes of mud and with main bridges destroyed, main townships have effectively become disconnected islands. There are potentially thousands of people trapped in the disaster zone.
In Alishan, for example, communities have no electricity, running water or basic telecommunications. Their stocks of food have dwindled and yet they are still waiting to be airlifted.
Devastated communities have become chaotic burial grounds, and the survivors do not know where their loved ones’ remains lie beneath the meters-deep mud.
People whose families were in Xiaolin Village made their way there only to find the entire village had been wiped out by mudslides. Crying, screaming, shouting and calling the names of lost loved ones, they knew they would receive no answer.
It seems that no central government official has been in effective charge of coordinating the relief work.
The death toll continues to climb, yet Premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) said “the relief work is proceeding quickly enough.”
Villagers remain trapped and the level of danger they face is not clear, yet the Ministry of Foreign Affairs originally turned down foreign aid and relief and said Taiwan could deal with the relief work on its own. It said Taiwan would accept money donations, but not other forms of support, including helicopters, which were most needed.
At a time when the country is struggling to handle an emergency and survivors are waiting to be rescued, an effective central emergency center is needed to mobilize and supervise the relief work, yet the government’s coordination has been inept.
Government resources are essentially frozen because no one is leading the gigantic government relief machine. Military troops that were ready to spring into action waited three days for orders.
Despite the government’s poor performance, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) considered it appropriate to attend the opening of the International Baseball Federation’s World Youth Baseball Championship in Taichung and the closing of an academic conference in Taipei organized in memory of late civic rights and anti-communist activist Lei Chen (雷震). Ma’s actions were absurd and ironic.
While the public bears the sorrow of watching the death toll climb day by day and seeing survivors cry out for lost loved ones, the government and president are aloof.
The public was shocked when Ma told a CNN journalist who asked whether the government had been prepared for Morakot that typhoon victims in mountainous areas “didn’t realize how serious the typhoon was.”
If they had evacuated earlier, the disaster would have been avoided, he said. He referred to disaster victims as “they” six times in answering the question.
Ma came across as unsympathetic and self-centered. As the nation’s leader, he preferred to blame the victims rather than shoulder the responsibility.
Part of Taiwan’s disaster is having a government whose emergency relief mechanism is dysfunctional, a president like Ma and a Cabinet that is inept. The government’s ineffective mobilization and coordination of relief efforts contrasts starkly with the efficient and swift response of civilians and civic groups.