Sun, Jul 11, 2004 - Page 17 News List

Swept away by Mindulle

A mountain village has been temporarilly relocated to a small town in Taichung County. The adults are anxious to return home, but their kids consider it summer camp



The wind and rains of Tropical Storm Mindulle have been replaced by a storm of statistics; 26 dead, 13 others missing, half a million households left without electricity or running water, NT$8.4 billion in agricultural damage.

If the reports lack a face, visit Tongshih Elementary School in Taichung County. You'll see 132 faces.

The school's gymnasium is currently the home of the entire village of Sanchakeng (三叉坑), an Atayal community tucked into the dense fold of mountains that is Taichung's Hoping Township. They were airlifted here a dozen at a time last Monday after Mindulle had broken the power lines and water pipes leading to the village and washed away parts of the only road connecting the village to the outside world. The shelter is one of several in the western part of the island temporarily housing thousands of people until power and water can be returned to their homes and vital roads are repaired.

Home away from home

The floor of the gymnasium has been sectioned off using folding chairs -- one section per family -- and tiled with the colorful foam squares found in kindergartens. A depot of donated goods is piled at the side in boxes. The scene looks like a living board game. Make your way around the chairs and collect a box of bottled water to put in your square.

The bottled water, cookies, chips, sweet breads, brooms and blankets are there courtesy of the local Lions Club. Earlier this week the club's members stood in front of their charity donations, posing in their orange vests and purple garrison caps for satellite news-gathering crews. For the villagers of Sanchakeng, having the cameras turned on someone else for a moment was as much a relief as the donated goods.

Lin Ming-chieh (林敏捷) used the diversion to return to a bottle of rice wine he'd stashed under his chair. He takes a drink and quickly caps it again when he sees another camera-slinging stranger approach. "Thank you!" he says like a reflex -- he's been saying thank you a lot -- "This is all wonderful!" He introduces his 87-year-old mother and his son, Jeff Lin (林聖), and turns to smile for the camera.

Tropical Storm Mindulle isn't the first disaster to befall the Lin family, or anyone else from Sanchakeng for that matter. During the 921 earthquake nearly five years ago, most of the town was destroyed -- all but a couple houses, according to Lin. The whole village slept in tents while the town was rebuilt. After that, Typhoon Toraji covered Sanchakeng with a blanket of mud, scrubbing the mountainside of vegetation that had taken root only a few seasons earlier.

Millions of NT dollars were invested in infrastructure meant to prevent future calamities caused by typhoons. Steep mountainsides were reinforced with sprawling steel and cement embankments. They were designed to withstand heavy rains, but last week Sanchakeng received nearly half of its average annual rainfall in just 36 hours. The soil saturated and many of the new embankments toppled.

"When you live in the mountains you get used to heavy rains and earthquakes," Lin said. "But these past years have been especially bad. If it weren't for government help, I'm not sure what we'd do. ... Move to the city to find work? The city isn't any safer than the mountains."

Time to clean up

The Sanchakeng Atayals are being put up in a town that has itself been ravaged by the recent rains. Families and shopkeepers in low-lying areas have spent the week dredging, sweeping and mopping their floors and piling ruined furniture into the street for trucks to take to local incinerators. A week of cleaning has begun to show results. Tongshih now surely has some of the whitest tile floors in Taiwan.

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