The 'big wind' brings chaos

Sat, Aug 15, 2009, 01:00

With hundreds feared dead, villages buried, millions displaced and the economy damaged, Taiwan is struggling to recover from Typhoon Morakot

FROM AN ELEVATED position on the high-tech bullet train travelling from Kaohsiung city, the biggest city in the region of south Taiwan worst affected by Typhoon Morakot, to the capital Taipei you can see just how damaging a tropical storm can be.

As the bullet train picks up speed to 240 km/h, you see palm trees blown over and, lacking their natural protection, tilled fields are flooded and strewn with debris. In one builder’s yard, scores of pallets of plasterboard have blown over and smashed. In an engineering firm’s outdoor storage area, rows of large steel shelves have blown over and spilled their contents all over the ground.

While the headline figures of 117 dead and hundreds missing in Taiwan are truly grim, in some ways they mask the real extent of the disaster. Taiwan, with its population of 23 million, is only the worst affected by the typhoon in the region.

THE DEATH TOLLacross the region illustrates just how devastating typhoon season in east and southeast Asia can be. Morakot is only the ninth typhoon of the Pacific cyclone season, and tropical storms have brought heavy rains to South Korea and Japan from a separate tropical storm, Etau. Flooding and mudslides in Japan’s southwest three days ago killed 13 people. In the Philippines, 23 people were killed.

In China, self-ruled Taiwan’s political rival across the Strait of Taiwan, Morakot, whose name means “emerald” in Thai, has had a direct impact on more than 11 million people, and more than 1.5 million have been relocated. Eight people have been killed in the eastern provinces of China.

Morakot unleashed the worst floods in 50 years in Taiwan, dumping a record 3,063 mm (10ft) of rain on the island, causing hundreds of millions of euro in agriculture losses. The agriculture council in Taiwan estimates 51,718 hectares of land, 3.9 million chickens and 82,630 pigs were wiped out by the typhoon. These losses take a long time to recover from – the typhoon may knock half a percentage point off Taiwanese economic growth in the current quarter.

In Cishan, which has been the focus of the relief effort in southern Taiwan, around 45 minutes by road from Koahsiung City, the force of a Chinook helicopter landing nearly blows this correspondent over, but rescuers brave the wind to bring more relief supplies to the chopper. The families of survivors struggle to get on to the Chinook to help with the rescue operation.

Taiwan’s government plans to give €21,000 per family of those who died or are missing and promised 700 temporary jobs for people affected by the typhoon, the cabinet said.

It seems incredible to see this kind of devastation in a place like Kaohsiung, which is a modern, highliy developed city. Like everywhere in Taiwan, it is years ahead, in development terms, of its counterparts in mainland China, simply because it has been richer for longer.

But the typhoon does not care about per capita income. Some of the most alarming images from Morakot’s onslaught showed the six-storey King Shai hotel having collapsed into a river in Taidong as its foundations gave way, although residents had been evacuated before it slid into the water.

Jayson, a concierge at a Kaohsiung hotel, had visited the King Shai with his girlfriend just weeks before. He is keen to show, on his mobile phone, pictures of the room they had stayed in, and of where their room ended up.

“We are very afraid. My mother comes from one of the villages that is still cut off. She is safe but every time we see the news we are frightened. You can see, the weather here in Kaohsiung city is nice,” he says, pointing at the clear skies.

“But up in the mountains, they are hoping people will reach them soon, otherwise the mountains will fall on them. We want to go and help them, but what can we do?” he says.

The situation in Kaohsiung county is grim. Whole villages and highways are gone. At one wide river crossing, the freeway bridge has been reduced to a short span at each side. In between, there is just a gushing torrent.

Aerial photographs of the village of Hsiao Lin, released by the Taiwanese army, have shaken the local population. People say “Hsiao Lin” and then grimace, and shake their heads. The town has become emblematic of the damage done by Morakot, even though many other townships have also suffered severely.

The footage shows a village that has vanished beneath mud, rocks and water, with only palm trees standing above the deluge. Two buildings remain standing. Survivors, brought out to the entrance to a tunnel above a broad expanse of water, wait for the arrival of the rescue teams.

The longer the survivors are waiting, the more desperate their circumstances. Victims tell of eating wild-growing vegetables to survive, and were too fearful of further mudslides to head back to where they might have found food, preferring to stick to solid ground.

EVERY YEAR, THEPacific typhoons are brewed in the northwestern Pacific Ocean. The difference between a typhoon and a cyclone is largely semantic. If the storms come from north of the equator, and west of the International Date Line, they are called typhoons. If they come from the Central Pacific or east of the International Date Line, they are called hurricanes or severe tropical cyclones. The origin of the word is contested – some say it comes from the Hakka dialect “tai foon”, but it is similar to the Cantonese “dai fung” or Mandrin “tai feng”, all meaning big wind.

People in the region are generally prepared for the annual round of typhoons, but they are at best a nuisance. At worst, as Morakot has shown, they can devastate whole regions.

The typhoon season is an annual event, and people are mostly resigned to the winds’ arrival, although it seems that in recent years typhoons are getting worse, some fear because of global warming – the seas get warmer, there is more precipitation.

In Hong Kong, elevators carry typhoon warnings and in some cases the whole territory can be closed down by the arrival of a “dai fung”.

At the Sofitel hotel in Manila, which is right on the seafront, the typhoon raises the level of the sea and often fish are deposited in the grounds around the swimming pool after a particularly heavy bashing from a typhoon.

Now that Morakot is ebbing somewhere in the Yellow Sea, the next environmental crisis makes its way onto the agenda. China’s vice premier, Hui Liangyu, says the next task is to fight secondary disasters as a result of Morakot, especially flooding in the south, as many rivers continue to have high water levels.