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Postcard from Cishan

4 minute read
Natalie Tso

Wu su-feng knows she was one of the lucky ones. “My husband thought we were washed away,” says Wu, a pregnant preschool teacher, sitting in a shelter for typhoon victims in the small town of Cishan in southern Taiwan. When Typhoon Morakot struck the island on Aug. 8, bringing nearly 9 ft. (around 2.5 m) of rain and the island’s worst floods in over 50 years, Wu grabbed her 1-year-old son and climbed three hours to higher ground. There, she and hundreds of people from her village waited three stormy days and nights before military helicopters rescued and delivered them — along with thousands of others — to safety in Cishan.

A week later, the thunder of large military helicopters returning from rescue missions still boomed through this small town — a locus of Morakot relief efforts — every 10 minutes. With each landing, workers raised a banner with the name of the village it had flown in from, as family members, lined up outside classrooms at Cishan Junior High School, hoped to see their loved ones emerge. “I used to cry every time I saw a helicopter,” says Lamada Isehmasan, after waiting for his parents and brother to be ferried for five days. “Now, I’m numb.”

(See pictures of Taiwan’s typhoon terror.)

Typhoons regularly sweep over Taiwan, but few living on the island today have seen anything like Morakot. It was the deadliest natural disaster to hit the island since a magnitude-7.3 earthquake struck in 1999, killing over 2,400. The storm dumped a year’s worth of rain on the island in three days, leading to floods that left at least 136 dead and nearly 400 missing, as well as widespread damage.

For Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, Morakot has also become a political storm. The same day that national television aired footage of mourners at the village of Siaolin, where some 400 people are thought to be buried by mudslides, Ma appeared on the evening news wearing a cheerful blue-and-white baseball cap and polo shirt at Taiwan’s World Youth Baseball Championship. It was not the President’s only faux pas. Earlier that week, Ma told reporters that residents living in Morakot’s path were not “well prepared,” pinning the slow evacuation on the victims and showing an aloofness that stood in sharp contrast for many Taiwan people to the urgency with which President Lee Teng-hui took charge of quake relief in 1999. People even came up with the stinging slogan “We’d rather have a corrupt President than an inept one!” — referring to former leader Chen Shui-bian, who is on trial for corruption. “[Ma’s] behavior has given him a very negative image,” says Yang Tai-shuenn, a political scientist at Taiwan’s Chinese Culture University. “It will take a very long time for him to recover.”

Ma has apologized for the sluggish response, expressing his regret in a deep, seven-second bow to the nation and pledging to overhaul national rescue operations. In his over one year in office, Ma has reached many milestones in relations with China, such as establishing direct transportation and closer economic ties, all of which are helping Taiwan weather the financial storm. But his approval ratings have dropped dramatically after Morakot. “President Ma faces a very serious crisis,” says Chiu Hei-yuan, a sociologist at National Taiwan University. “He’ll still have a chance if he does very well with the reconstruction.” That won’t come cheap: the estimate is $3.3 billion.

Living in temporary shelters throughout Taiwan, Wu and some 7,000 other people made homeless by Morakot are trying to cope. The Cishan shelter’s main hall is filled with drinks, crackers, new clothes, slippers, toothpaste, soap and towels — part of the outpouring of support from around the island. “It is good to be alive and to know people care,” says Wu. But, she adds, “we’re still in trauma.” Still, Wu is one of the more optimistic residents; she, at least, wants to return to her village. Many don’t. Yin Jui-rong, an aboriginal farmer whose village was also destroyed, says he won’t go back even if it gets rebuilt. “I’d be terrified every time it rains,” Yin says. “Our future is a very difficult problem to solve.”

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