As Typhoon Soudelor swept across the nation on Friday night and Saturday last week, Peggy Chen (陳佩琪), the wife of Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), said on Facebook that “Ko Wen-je had a rare opportunity to spend all day at home eating, emptying the refrigerator.”
The post attracted a storm of criticism against Ko on the Internet.
What should a head of government do during a typhoon? There is no textbook answer to this question. However, six years ago, then-Executive Yuan
secretary-general Hsueh Hsiang-chuan (薛香川) resigned after taking time off to have dinner with his father on Father’s Day during Typhoon Morakot.
By comparison, it seems a little unfair if Ko is to get off scot-free.
Typhoon Morakot destroyed Siaolin Village (小林村) in Kaohsiung, but the Cabinet only found out after the typhoon had passed. Delayed and ineffective disaster relief made the Cabinet the target of public criticism, with Hsueh taking the brunt of the anger, forcing him to step down. Not long after, he was followed by the resignation of then-premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄).
While Soudelor did not cause any human casualties in Taipei, strong winds brought down trees and many houses collapsed. Compared with other counties and cities, the damage in the capital was minimal and power outages were repaired faster than in other places. The main problem for Taipei residents was murky tap water: The water in the Nanshih River (南勢溪) was turbid and required treatment. Treating the water would take time and Ko’s presence at the disaster response center would not have cleaned the water any faster.
Typhoon Morakot was a major disaster and the public felt it was wrong of Hsueh to spend the evening having dinner with his father. Typhoon Soudelor did not cause a major disaster in Taipei and Ko had already held a disaster prevention meeting earlier in the day. He also visited affected sites to inspect relief and clean-up work, and he maintained contact during the typhoon via the Line messaging app, directing the work of different departments. It is only natural that the public would take a different view of Ko’s handling of the situation. If it had been a major disaster that Ko was trying to handle via Line from the comfort of his home, he would probably not be forgiven, even by his most ardent fans.
The presence of government leaders at disaster prevention centers during typhoons is standard operating procedure, while their handling of the situation, aimed at integrating the relief efforts of the central and local governments and the different ministries and agencies, is a vertical response mechanism, connecting the central and the local governments. However, the advanced level of communication technologies and tools make it possible to make disaster reporting and relief command flatter, since it removes several levels of reporting and simplifies instructions.
It may seem unfair that Ko is being criticized for his handling of the response to Soudelor, but he brought it on himself. Ko is the mayor of the nation’s capital, which places him in the public limelight. While his wife’s Facebook post should have been a private matter, the nature of Ko’s position makes it a public matter and he should therefore expect it to be subjected to public scrutiny.
This is the nature of democratic politics. It is something that every politician and their families must get used to and handle with care, as anyone with a dissenting political opinion is always on the lookout for something to criticize.
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