'I held my son, but we were still washed away'

The devastating toll of Typhoon Morakot is now emerging from traumatised survivors, reports Clifford Coonan in Cishan, Taiwan
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The woman became hysterical as another helicopter landed without her loved ones. "Where are they?" she wailed, before Buddhist volunteers gathered to try to comfort her. Heartbroken, she used her mobile phone to relay the news to other relatives that so far, the search had been fruitless.

As helicopters whirled yesterday over the area of southern Taiwan that took the brunt of Typhoon Morakot, groups of middle-aged women wearing blue smocks from the local Buddhist groups handed out rice wrapped in banana leaves and lunch boxes to bedraggled survivors as they arrived at Cishan Junior School.

The town has been the nerve centre of a slow and difficult relief and rescue operation since the typhoon battered Taiwan at the weekend, dumping more than two metres of rain, causing the worst flooding in 50 years and provoking disastrous mudslides.

There was good news yesterday with the announcement that hundreds of people feared dead had been found alive, but hundreds remain unaccounted for, possibly buried under the mud and rubble. Some who were brought to the centre were eager to tell rescuers how lucky they were to be alive. They were quickly whisked away in ambulances to centres set up across Kaohsiung County for those made homeless.

Ting-chun Wu, a psychologist from Cishan, was in tears watching the helicopters arrive empty and depart with boxes of supplies for the remote communities still isolated by the catastrophe. "They are finding more and more people but there are a lot still who have yet to be located" she said.

The stories of some who have been rescued are horrifying. Chiao-ying Lin lost 12 members of her family in Sanmin township and only she, her infant son, her 11-year-old brother and her unborn baby survived.

Ms Lin had gone to Sanmin from Pingtung, where she lives, to visit her parents for a family reunion, despite the bad weather. "After a while I heard a loud sound. My mother asked me: "is that an earthquake?" Then, less than two seconds later, the mudslide came into our house. We simply did not have time to react. My youngest brother Jordan was scared and shouted for help. I held onto my son, held him tightly. But we still were washed away," she told the United Daily News.

She climbed her way out and found a meeting point in the village where others had gathered and they stayed there, in the mud and the rain, waiting to be rescued. "In the past I was very rebellious, did not cherish my family. But now I can't go back," she said.

In the same Sanmin township, Li Ming-kai and his wife, Sun Yalun, lost their six-month-old daughter and his mother in the landslide. They lived downhill from the National Primary School and when the typhoon hit, their neighbours told them to run, but it was too late. They were engulfed by the mudslide. "My wife and I struggled to escape, but my mother and daughter were buried alive," he said.

They waited on the same platform as Ms Lin. "Several times we wanted to give up, but we thought if we are going to die, we should die together."

An elderly woman at Cishan was having her pulse taken in a tent and receiving emergency equipment and supplies. She thanked her rescuers profusely but said that she was worried that many of her neighbours remained unaccounted for in her village.

In what appeared to be a miraculous find on Tuesday night, rescuers located nearly 1,000 people near some of the remotest villages devastated by Morakot. The villagers had managed to climb to safety on higher ground before the mud and rocks came crashing into their homes.

So far, Morakot has officially killed at least 93 people – 22 in the Philippines, eight in China and 63 in Taiwan. Taiwanese authorities say a further 61 are missing. But these figures do not include people from Hsiao Lin and the surrounding area. It's still difficult to establish how many people remain buried under the rocks and mud, especially in places like Hsiao Lin, which remain fiendishly difficult to reach.

Also, while 1,300 people are registered as living in the town, far fewer are believed to have been there during the mudslide. Local people have complained bitterly about the need for more helicopters to be made available. In Cishan itself, large swathes of the town remain mired in the mud. Trees and roads signs litter the street and cars lie against buildings and trees. Locals worked to salvage what they could from the wreckage of their homes and shops.

The villagers were helped by soldiers wearing camouflage uniforms and orange Wellington boots who worked to scrape the sludge from the streets. Crops in the area around the town have been destroyed and it will take years for the area to recover.

The Taiwanese President, Ma Ying-jeou, arrived in Chishan by helicopter during the morning and was greeted with angry shouts from locals. "We're busy here. Go and help the people, don't come here," yelled one villager. This part of southern Taiwan is densely forested and it has been difficult for rescue teams to get to the worst affected areas.

"The exact number of casualties is still very hard to say, we are still working on rescuing people, and clearing roads to get people out and relief supplies in," said a man surnamed Li from the Kaohsiung Disaster Relief Centre. "Our focused rescue points are Maolin, Liouguei, Sanmin and Jiasian, also Taoyuan and Baolai. There are tens of thousands people living in those four townships."

Taiwan is used to typhoons but Morakot seemed to catch the authorities off guard. More than 30,000 homes are without power and nearly a million homes have no water.