Thu, Aug 20, 2009 - Page 8 News List

Delays in relief efforts exacerbated the disaster

By Cheng Li-chiun Bill Chang 鄭麗君 張國城

Because of the government’s apathy and incompetence when Typhoon Morakot struck earlier this month, people have been trapped in cut-off villages much longer than necessary. Government relief efforts have been a catastrophe.

Floodwaters and mudslides caused by the typhoon wiped out villages, leaving hundreds of people dead and many more homeless. Not only should we express heartfelt condolences to those who lost loved ones, we owe it to the victims to investigate the government’s neglect lest such a tragedy happen again.

A key problem lies in the government’s unwillingness to take responsibility.

Seventy-two hours after the disaster, there was a clear opportunity to rescue trapped villagers, yet President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) failed to order immediate rescue operations or mobilize the necessary manpower.

Not only did the government fail to do all it could, Ma has yet to proclaim a state of emergency, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs initially refused overseas aid. Nevertheless, the Ma administration has blamed inaccurate weather forecasts and said local authorities were responsible for rescue work, while the central government would only provide support.

Article 34 of the Disaster Prevention and Protection Act (災害防救法) stipulates that the central government should take the initiative in disaster relief efforts.

Local governments did not have access to armored vehicles or helicopters, which are controlled by the central government. It is irresponsible for Ma as commander in chief to say that local authorities bear full responsibility for the rescue operations and shows he does not understand the disaster law.

The government’s incompetence in directing rescue operations exacerbated the tragedy.

Since the Pachang Creek (八掌溪) incident, disaster prevention measures have improved. But for areas still at high risk of flooding, the government should take the initiative to decide when to issue an early warning and evacuate residents.

A look at typhoons between 2001 and 2007 shows that although rainfall has increased, death tolls have fallen. Yet since the transfer of political power, the nation’s disaster prevention system seems to have collapsed even though civil servants and the military remain the same.

The role of the president is a key factor.

After the 921 Earthquake, then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) went to the disaster area immediately and deployed military personnel to launch rescue work. He also accepted international aid.

Both the central and local governments managed to fulfill their responsibilities.

By contrast, though more than a week has passed since Morakot slammed into Taiwan, Ma still seems unaware of his powers, while Liu brags about the success of the government’s rescue effort.

The public still doesn’t know which government agency is in charge of the disaster relief: Is it the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, the Ministry of the Interior, the Council of Agriculture, the Council of Indigenous Peoples, the Department of Health or the Environmental Protection Administration?

Work to restore running water and electricity, repair roads, dole out subsidies, relocate homeless families, prevent disease outbreaks and clear rubble and mud is chaotic.

It is frightening to speculate on how the reconstruction effort will proceed.

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