Rain hampers hunt for Taiwan typhoon survivors

CISHAN, Taiwan — Hundreds of survivors from Typhoon Morakot were stranded in mudslide-ravaged villages in southern Taiwan today as heavy rains hampered helicopter rescues and the hunt for many more feared buried beneath rubble.

The military reported that it had traced some 1,000 villagers from the worst-hit village of Shiao Lin and two other stricken communities in the past two days. So far at least 300 of them have been airlifted to safety, said spokesman for relief operations Col. Chang Kuo-bin. Hundreds more — nobody is sure how many — are still feared missing.

The official death toll in Taiwan stands at 63, and authorities could only confirm 61 missing. Eight more are confirmed to have died in China.

Chang said the army today found more than 500 more survivors sheltering in an elementary school in the Bao Lai area, which also lies in the largely rural southern county of Kaohsiung. He said they plan airlift them out on Thursday.

Bad weather today meant army helicopters could only manage a few dozen sorties to ferry survivors from the remote villages in the region’s forested mountains to safety in the town of Cishan, where a makeshift landing zone has been set up in the grounds of a school.

On Tuesday, a government helicopter crashed into a mountain as it flew on a rescue mission. All three crew aboard died.

Government-owned Central News Agency reported that the army had either brought in food overland or airlifted necessary goods to those stranded in the three villages, and there was no immediate threat to the survivors’ lives.

The first video from Shiao Lin village since the disaster was aired today, and showed the devastation left by the huge mudslide triggered when Morakot struck at the weekend, dumping as much as 80 inches of rain on the island.

A broadcast from Taiwanese TV station ETTV showed the village buried by a sea of mud and rock, with only two buildings left standing. A sodden cat hid in a crack under the rubble.

“The temple seemed to be there, and over there was the police station,” an unnamed male villager told the TV crew, pointing to different parts of the flattened village.

He then pointed to a long strip of mud lined with huge rocks next to a hill — which he said was the remains of an asphalt road — and pointed to an empty wasteland beside it. “I used to live there,” said the man, who looked in his 40s and distressed.

Luo Shun-chi, 36, who escaped from Shiao Lin shortly after Sunday’s mudslide, told The Associated Press that he did not know how many of his fellow villagers survived or how many died.

He said that between 500 and 600 people were in Shiao Lin at the time of the disaster — far fewer than the 1,300 people listed in Taiwan’s population registry.

Taiwan’s National Fire Agency has said 100 people were under the mud in Shiao Lin, but has not offered any evidence to back up that claim.

Luo said that whatever the Shiao Lin death toll, he was never going back.

“The place is finished,” he said. “There is no way I could return.”

A senior Taiwanese police official said today that there is no way to know for sure how many people were buried there.

“We’ve got some people out,” said Cishan police chief Lee Chin-lung. “But it is extremely hard to know how many remain there.”

Morakot, which means “emerald” in the Thai language, first struck the Philippines, where 22 died. After the typhoon hit Taiwan, it pounded eastern China with winds reaching 74 miles per hour. Authorities evacuated 1.5 million people and some 10,000 homes were destroyed.

The official toll from flooding in three provinces in eastern China remained today at eight dead and three missing.

Authorities have blown breaches in some embankments to lower the level of some swollen rivers and have begun cleanup operations, but it was not immediately clear if many of those displaced in the region have been able to return to their homes.

Mainland media focussed on the plight of people in Taiwan. The government’s official body for contacts with Taiwan held a ceremony today to receive more than $14 million in donations from Chinese corporations to be distributed to Taiwanese storm victims.

Tensions between China and Taiwan, which split amid civil war in 1949, have eased in recent months.

A separate storm, Typhoon Etau, moved away from Japan’s eastern coast today after killing at least 18 people and leaving nine others missing, officials said.

Most were swept away by rain-swollen rivers or killed in landslides and floods, police said.

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