Yin Jui-rong was one of the lucky ones. "I watched my village get buried," says the aboriginal farmer in southern Taiwan, one of hundreds in the mountainous region caught in the island's worst floods in 50 years. On August 8, Yin and 300 others in the township of Namasia fled their homes and climbed up a nearby mountain to higher ground. They spent three stormy days and nights under makeshift tents before the weather cleared enough for them to make smoke signals for help. Finally, after more than 72 hours, military helicopters spotted and rescued them.
In neighboring Siaolin village, the government confirmed that nearly 400 were buried alive, bringing the death toll of Typhoon Morakot, which hit Taiwan last week, to over 500. It was the deadliest natural disaster Taiwan has seen since a 7.3 earthquake hit the island in 1999, killing 2,416, mostly in central Taiwan. The storm dumped more than six feet of rain in over two days, leading to floods that wiped out many mountainside villages and towns, a six-story hotel, 34 bridges, 253 roads and countless homes. As of Saturday morning, an estimated 35,000 people are still stranded in the region.
Seven days after Morakot hit, the thunder of large military helicopters landing every ten minutes at Cishan Junior High School booms through this small township an epicenter of Morakot relief efforts as they return from the ongoing rescue missions. With each landing, rescue workers raise a banner with the name of the village it flew in from as family members, lined up outside the classrooms, desperately look and hope to see their loved ones come out. "I used to cry every time I saw a helicopter," says Lamada Isehmasan, who has been waiting for his parents and brother to be ferried in for the past five days, "but now I'm numb." He learned the day before that they are safe, but still stuck.
Hundreds like him are also still waiting outside Cishan's classrooms. "I couldn't sleep all week. I had no idea how my family is doing," says Chen Hsiu-lan, a farmer who was also stranded in the mountains for six days until an excavator cleared the roads enough for her to leave her home. Now she's waiting at the school for her older brother.
In the first few days of rescue efforts, before the military had organized its efforts and started to list the names of those who are safe and awaiting rescue, family members who made it to Cishan were panicked. "People were screaming and crying and even wanted to go on the helicopters," says Cheng Ni-li, a volunteer working at the site. In the past week, 15,000 people have been carried to safety by the 38,000 Taiwanese soldiers deployed to the typhoon-struck area. But many are complaining that Taipei didn't act fast enough. "In the beginning, they were too slow," says World Vision Cishan Director Caleb Yu. "But in the past few days, they've gone full speed." Yin, the farmer who waited three days before his rescue, agrees. "They took too long and probably lost lives."
It's a sentiment that is not good news for President Ma Ying-jeou, elected with 58% of the vote last year and already battling the island's recession, who now faces another major challenge to his relatively new administration. Taiwan is known for its susceptibility to big storms, and many at the national level have said that Taipei's well-funded emergency response teams should have been able to get to the stranded citizens sooner. Even lawmakers from his own Kuomintang party have criticized Ma this week for the government's slow response to Morakot, particularly as the public has voiced the need for more effective disaster relief after major typhoons and earthquakes in recent years. "We should have a disaster relief agency that coordinates our resources," said Chiu Yi, a prominent lawmaker, Monday. "We've been talking about this for the past ten years."
Ma's next challenge will be to show that not only can he rescue lives, he can rebuild them, too. Morakot, which means "emerald" in Thai, has left 7,000 people homeless, most of them from aboriginal communities who make a living off the land. Many are now living in crowded shelters, like the one run by Cishan's Fo Guang Shan Association, a Buddhist organization. There, Lin Ai-tung, with a nine-month old baby strapped to her chest, tells reporters how she fed her baby with rain water and infant formula for two days before they were rescued from Minchu village. The hall is filled with stacks of donated drinks, crackers, new slippers, clothes, toothpaste, soap, and towels part of an outpouring of support that has come from around the nation in the past week. One government bank account open for donations has already collected $30 million from the public. On Friday night, a celebrity fundraiser in Taipei raised over $15 million for the flood victims in a seven-hour event.
Taiwan will need all the help it can get. Current estimates figure that Morakot caused $910 million in losses to agriculture and infrastructure, and the cost for reconstruction is estimated at $3.6 billion, about the same as the 1999 earthquake. The foreign ministry is asking other countries for help, another issue it has been criticized for being slow on. In particular, it's asking for prefabricated houses and helicopters that can lift trucks and excavators so that roads can be reopened. China, which Taiwan has grown closer to under the Ma administration, has also offered to provide 1000 prefabricated homes, relief personnel and over $14 million for relief efforts.
On the ground, there is still much to be done. Some 1500 people are still trapped in Yin's village alone, the Kaohsiung County Commissioner said on Thursday. Over 35,000 are believed to be stranded in other mountainous parts of the island. Once they're rescued, they, too, need to be housed, fed and given a life again. Even though Yin owns land where he has grown mangoes, peaches and bamboos shoots for a decade, he doesn't want to return to Namasia . "I'd be terrified every time it rains," he says, "Our future is also a very difficult problem to solve."