Hard Rains Fall
Typhoon Morakot pounds southern Taiwan, and a CommonWealth Magazine reporter, having visited just days before to investigate the area's drought, returns to find the once parched earth buried under churning waves.
Hard Rains FallBy Yu-Jung Peng
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 428 )
August 9, Syuejia Township, Tainan County
It was a scene straight out of the movie "Day After Tomorrow."
On August 9, five days after I finished interviewing farmers in Syuejia on how they were coping with the drought and saving water when irrigating their crops, I returned to the same town in Tainan County. An area that had been bone dry was now submerged under water a story high.
A full year of precipitation had fallen on parts of southern Taiwan in the previous three days, forcing the Tsengwen Reservoir to discharge water at the rate of 8,000 cubic meters per second. The resulting torrent broke through an embankment near Shanhua, flooding the area.
County Road 174, which five days earlier cut through parched, cracked farmland, was now a river in which milkfish were swimming.
At 11 p.m. on Aug. 9, riding toward Syuejia in his high ground clearance SUV, Tainan County magistrate Su Huan-Chih could only stare out the window and lament, "It's bad. It's bad." At the same time, he used plurk (a rival of twitter) to keep up to date on news from other areas and issue instructions to subordinates.
The flooding unleashed by Typhoon Morakot destroyed a nearby transformer station, blacking out Syuejia. Hundreds of helpless residents crowded outside town hall in their bare feet, and as Su's SUV approached, its headlights lit up their anxious eyes.
Barefooted Syuejia township chief Hsieh Tsai-wang, his voice hoarse from speaking loudly, was moved to kneel in desperation before Su when he saw the county magistrate. He stammered out a few words in Taiwanese: "Magistrate, Syuejia is being wiped out."
Mrs. Tsai, who has lived in Syuejia for 30 years since marrying a local resident, said she had never seen the town flooded. Marine Corps colonel Hsieh Ming-hsin directed five-meter high amphibious landing craft around the town in waist-high water to rescue stranded residents. In all, seven of the landing craft, nicknamed "floppers," and any vehicle that could move were mobilized in the rescue effort. Small farm carts, cargo trucks, and table-scrap recycling trucks could all be seen evacuating residents.
On the road toward the town of Jiali, the situation appeared even more treacherous. Three nursing homes with 150 senior citizens were completely surrounded by water. The Tainan County Fire Bureau steered rubber dinghies near the homes and carefully removed some of those trapped, passing them off to the marines' landing craft to be taken to safety.
Elderly residents with breathing devices or tubes in their noses were also packed onto nearby rafts provided by local fishermen before outside help arrived, and many looked confused as they stared into the water below them. In all, only 40 of the nursing home residents were rescued at that time, with those left behind saved later in the day.
Lin Po-wen, commander of Tainan County's First Emergency and Rescue Corps, had not slept for 48 hours and the previous day was in Liuying on a rescue mission. But he could still be heard bellowing, "What about those dinghies that were promised?" Lin needed new dinghies, because some of the five he originally had broke down with overheated engines or got snarled in fishing nets.
During the ordeal, the mobile phone of Wu Chih-chin, the head of the Tainan County Fire Bureau's Fire Investigation Section, rang constantly. Holding his phone with trepidation, Wu repeatedly asked his contacts for updates on the situation in towns across the county. Standing in water up to his knees, he frowned as he looked at the flooded road ahead, too busy to worry about the fate of 24 missing members of the Siaying rescue corps.
In fewer than three days, an area ravaged by drought had been devastated by flooding. What will tomorrow bring? I can only pray.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier
Chinese Version: 要命的水