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.
Daily necessities, equipment and other supplies are piling up in local relief centers, yet are going nowhere. Heavy trucks, excavators and forklifts provided by the private sector are lined up outside relief centers yet their operators have not received instructions to help with road work or repairing broken bridges.
Volunteer workers of all ages are pouring in from everywhere to help the victims of Morakot, even traversing rough terrain on foot to reach isolated areas, but many volunteers are unsure where to go.
People anxious about the fate of their relatives are carrying heavy bags of food and other supplies, determined to reach home and find their families, regardless of the risks. Civilian rescue teams have been risking their lives to reach trapped and helpless survivors. Three lives were lost when a helicopter crashed during a rescue mission, leaving three families heartbroken.
Thousands of volunteer workers for the non-profit Buddhist Compassionate Relief Tzu Chi Foundation are providing food to victims, moving mud, distributing donated supplies and committing to help rebuild communities together with flood victims.
Troops and official rescue teams were not on the scene for three days.
When we needed more helicopters to airlift the wounded, evacuate people from mudslide-hit areas, take food and water to isolated villages, and prevent civilian rescuers from risking their lives by crossing floodwaters and unstable bridges, the government failed to mobilize rescue resources and rejected foreign aid from the US and Japan, claiming that Taiwan had enough resources.
The government’s message was essentially that money was acceptable, but nothing else. “We will be just fine,” it seemed to say even as people in the south struggled to survive.
Parts of the south were in chaos, yet the premier said rescue work was proceeding well. In reality, thousands of people remained trapped in disconnected villages and townships. Villagers awaiting rescue in Liukuei Township’s (六龜) Hsinkai community (新開) put up a sign for those across a broken bridge to read, informing them that 32 people were dead and a rescue team was needed immediately.
“Death toll 32, SOS,” the sign said.
Typhoon Morakot brought a disaster that will never be forgotten in Taiwan. But the catastrophe was exacerbated by the failure of the government, which surely knew it was sacrificing innocent lives through its inaction. Unnecessary death and damage were brought upon Taiwan because of its central government, its premier and its president.
People are still missing and the death toll is rising. Hearts are broken, anger and frustration pour out in tears; loved ones are buried deep below the mud and will never return to their families’ embraces.
Yet Taiwan will not lose its determination. It will be hopeful and brave. Broken hearts are still beating and full of love. Sympathy and encouragement, whether from a neighbor or communities across the country, provides strong mental support. Volunteer workers are on the scene, holding hands and calming suffering souls.
The government and president cannot slow the pace of civilian rescuers and the mobilization of the private sector. Taiwan’s strength now is the ability of its people to unite in the face of catastrophe.
The public will do all it can to rescue people and keep hope alive.
As a Taiwanese, I have never felt so proud and so touched. We have a brilliant people — brave, generous, independent and full of sympathy.
But we also have a dysfunctional government — weak and disorganized. It turned a natural disaster into a man-made tragedy.
Ma’s government should bear full responsibility for the unnecessary death and damage caused by its delay in relief and rescue work. Incapable officials should be held responsible. The Cabinet may soon be dismissed or shuffled.
Aid from the US, Britain, the EU, Germany, Japan, Singapore and other countries — in total 59 so far — is greatly appreciated. The public is grateful to see sorely needed US CH-53E helicopters, which can lift heavy equipment, finally arriving in Taiwan to assist in relief operations. This humanitarian support was a beautiful gesture.
After this disaster, the last word the mourning Taiwanese want to hear is “government.” Hopefully, the roar of their anger will be heard and relief and reconstruction will come to the south as soon as possible.
Huang Yu-wen is a commentator based in Taipei.
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