Taiwanese hauled to safety across raging river

SINFA, Taiwan — Terrified survivors of Typhoon Morakot were pulled to safety along cables slung across a raging river, five days after dozens of their fellow villagers died in flash floods, as criticism mounted today over Taiwan’s response to the disaster.

The army has deployed thousands of troops in a massive effort aimed at saving hundreds of stranded villagers after the worst flooding to hit Taiwan in 50 years. Some 14,000 villagers have been rescued so far. Hundreds more are feared missing or dead.

Soldiers with fatigues and fat gloves tugged survivors from the farming village of Sinkai 100 yards across the Ba Si Lan River, using a cable sling suspended above the torrential, muddy waters. Among the several dozen saved were a young boy in shorts and an elderly woman with bare feet and a couple of shopping bags worth of belongings salvaged from her home.

Unbuckled from their harnesses after the perilous journey, villagers looked dazed and frightened as they recalled the harrowing night of Aug. 8.

“It rained for days,” said Li Wen-chuan, a grizzled-looking man of 68 with sparse salt-and-pepper hair, teeth stained red by years of betel nut chewing. “But the flood came so suddenly and with a tremendous roar. It destroyed everything in the village.”

“This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me,” he said, adding that many of the 32 who died in village were friends and family. “My life will never be the same.”

On the far side of the river were the foundations of a destroyed bridge that had linked Sinkai with Sinfa — where the villagers were hauled to safety. A nearby sign, put up to call attention to the villagers’ plight, recorded the loss of life: “32 people died here SOS.”

Pan Yi-chang, a 32-year-old mother of two, said that when the rains spawned by Morakot began to fall, she had no inkling that this typhoon would be any different from the past dozen or so bad storms that hit Taiwan from June and September.

“Everything happened so fast,” she said. “Flooding just destroyed everything.”

Pan said she was lucky because all of her family survived — her husband, her two children and her mother and father.

As she spoke, Pan gazed longingly back across the river toward the only home she has ever known, a close-knit community of 1,000 whose economy is based on growing mangos and guavas.

In the background, a heavy mist enveloped the summit of a nearby mountain and torrents of water cascaded down its dark green facades.

Sinkai is only one of the scores of the isolated mountain villages in the rural south of Taiwan devastated by Typhoon Morakot, which dumped 80 inches of rain on the island this past weekend. One of the worst affected is Shiao Lin, where hundreds remain missing after a catastrophic mudslide spawned by days of torrential rain.

Taiwan’s official death toll from the storm now stands at 108, with another 62 listed as missing. That does not include the toll in Shiao Lin and other remote communities.

Many of those rescued say they can never return to their villages because there is nothing left to return to.

But Li, the grizzled veteran of Sinkai, is not one of them.

“I am going back,” he said. “Sinkai is where my roots are. I have no other place to go.”

Many complained that the government was too slow to mobilize the rescue and cleanup effort, saying more victims could have been saved if they had moved sooner and faster.

“Why does the government say only useless things?” a woman anxious to learn the fate of relatives trapped in Kaochung village in the south asked. With tears filling her eyes, she told TV reporters: “I’ve been waiting for several days, yet there has not been anyone going to rescue my family.”

In a short interview with CNN, President Ma Ying-jeou blamed the severe damage brought by the flooding on villagers’ inability to get out of their communities before the storm.

Authorities in worst-hit Kaohsiung county did ask inhabitants from the villages most severely battered by Morakot to leave before the storm, but they did not try to forcibly remove the residents, and some villagers decided against leaving.

“They were not fully prepared. If they were, they should have been evacuated much earlier,” Ma said. “They didn’t realize how serious the disaster was.”

In the interview Ma did not comment on whether the government was doing enough to help with the evacuation.

On today, 4,000 troops joined the 16,000 already at work restoring severed roads, rehabilitating ravaged neighborhood and ferrying typhoon victims to safety in dozens of helicopter missions.

So far some 14,000 villagers have been rescued — including 600 today, the island’s disaster relief center said.

Another 2,000 villagers — who escaped those floods and were sheltering either in open fields or on higher ground — were still waiting to be ferried to shelters, it said. Several hundred more — no one is sure how many — remain unaccounted for and are feared lost in the mudslides.

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