Death Toll Is Still Rising After Storm in Taiwan

From : The New York Times
KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan — President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan said Friday that the death toll from Typhoon Morakot, which pummeled the island with three days of rain last weekend, would probably reach 500, far higher than the 117 confirmed deaths announced the day before.

During his address to a national security meeting in the capital, Taipei, Mr. Ma described the storm as the most devastating in half a century and conceded that the reconstruction work might be “even more difficult and cumbersome” than the rescue efforts, which some have criticized as too slow. He said the typhoon caused $1.5 billion in damage and left 7,000 people homeless.

Mr. Ma’s estimate of a much higher death toll dovetailed with the accounts of survivors who have told of scores of homes and their occupants being swept away by rock and mud when waterlogged mountainsides gave way Sunday morning.

The president, who was sworn in 15 months ago, has been facing growing public impatience over his handling of the typhoon’s aftermath. Some critics have chastised him for underestimating the devastation and for not immediately requesting international assistance. Almost everywhere he has gone in recent days, Mr. Ma has been confronted by grief-stricken and frustrated people who have said his government could be doing more.

On Thursday, the Taiwanese cabinet reversed an earlier decision and said that it would accept foreign aid, including the heavy-lift helicopters needed to carry excavation equipment deep into the mountains. Compounding critics’ cynicism about the government’s performance, the Foreign Ministry said the rejection of foreign help was actually a typographical error in documents it had sent abroad.

Officials have strenuously defended their efforts, saying that the rainfall, amounting to more than 80 inches, exceeded all predictions and that the remoteness of many affected villages had made recovery efforts especially complicated. On Tuesday, three members of a rescue crew were killed when their helicopter slammed into a ravine.

“The government has not shirked its responsibility,” Mr. Ma said Friday. “We will overcome every difficulty and complete this mission.”

The early criticism, expressed by anguished family members and broadcast on national television, has emboldened members of Taiwan’s vocal political opposition, which has dispensed with any reluctance to exploit the challenges facing Mr. Ma.

Sisy Wen-hsien Chen, a political commentator, lobbed the ultimate insult by suggesting that Mr. Ma’s post-disaster performance had paled in comparison with that of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China, Taiwan’s rival, during the Sichuan earthquake last year.

Mr. Wen received high marks for exuding compassion while rescue operations were under way, even as his government quashed any public debate over whether poorly built schools had led to the high death toll among students.

Harvard-educated and prone to wonkish utterances, Mr. Ma is not known as a good communicator. His wooden qualities have been thrown into stark relief in recent days as he has tried to console storm victims.

When a weeping man who described himself as a supporter complained that he had been repeatedly blocked by bodyguards, Mr. Ma did not hide his annoyance. “Now you’re seeing me,” he told the man.

Compounding the public’s anger, Mr. Ma made remarks to a British television station in which he seemed to blame typhoon victims for their own misery. “They were not fully prepared,” he said. “If they had been, they should have been evacuated much earlier.”

Ms. Chen, the political commentator, said that the president added insult to injury by using detached language like “they” to describe people enduring great trauma. “Mr. Ma doesn’t know what to do when people kneel down before him,” she said.

Wang Sing-nan, a legislator from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, was even harsher. “If the presidential office was flooded, President Ma wouldn’t know how to save anyone,” he said.

The typhoon struck at a delicate time for Mr. Ma, who has been struggling to steer Taiwan and its export-heavy economy through rough times. He has also incurred the wrath of many for aggressively pushing closer ties with China.

Although the freewheeling Taiwanese news media have taken considerable pleasure in the president’s travails, most coverage has focused on a rescue operation that involves 38,000 soldiers and about 380 helicopters.

Officials have estimated that as many as 2,000 people are still trapped in remote areas with limited food and water.

At least 380 of the dead are believed to have been in Hsiao-lin, an isolated village high in the mountains of southern Taiwan that has been severed from the outside world. In recent days, more than 15,000 people have been airlifted from Hsiao-lin and other communities cut off when landslides and rushing water destroyed roads and bridges.

“They’re all dead, I know it,” said Zhou Gan, 45, who was waiting at a staging area as helicopters dropped off survivors and picked up supplies.

Since Monday, Ms. Zhou, who was not in Hsiao-lin when the storm struck, had been waiting in vain for word from her 80-year-old father. “At this point, I just want to go back home so I can find his body,” she said through tears.

Recovering the dead from beneath 50 feet of rubble, however, might not be feasible. On Friday, Yang Chiu-hsing, the magistrate of Kaohsiung County, said villagers were suggesting that the remains of those buried by a huge landslide in Hsiao-lin be left undisturbed.

Then, he said, a public memorial should be built on the site where 170 houses once stood.

Kuanying Yu contributed reporting.