August 17, 2009

Typhoon Morakot

This time last week, we were a giddy bunch. At my day job, there were no classes because the students had been taken on a field trip to Miaoli for a BBQ. As the day wore on, it became more and more obvious that our presence would not be required the next day, and a holiday atmosphere began to well up within the teacher's room. We talked about typhoon days from the past, and near-typhoon days on which coworkers had gone ahead and gotten too drunk to stand up and teach anyway and not been able to come in to teach. This is the life of the English teacher in Taiwan.

Last Thursday, I said have a nice weekend to job #1 and went to job #2, and didn't get wet, so my typhoon was going well. By 1900hrs, they had cancelled school for Friday and I was happier than a pig in shit. Come on, a three day weekend in a country where those are in short supply. Who could blame me for being enthusiastic for the storm?

The wind came through my neighborhood on Friday morning. I know this because I had left an empty water bottle outside my window for the purpose of watering plants which are no longer there. When the wind picked up, that bottle rattled around the safety cage like a bingo ball in a retirement center on Tuesday night.

All day Friday we stayed inside and played with the kids. My neighbor came upstairs and helped me finish a few beers before noon. Typhoon Day is that kind of a holiday. We watched movies, and ate dumplings. There were plenty of provisions thanks to a last minute shopping spree at Carrefour that ended around 2330. We didn't turn on the news until later that night when I called my brother on Skype to talk about the slowly passing storm.

The news was all the same, I said. Just like a snowstorm in the American South, I said. Same obvious news stories on each channel. There's a typhoon. It's raining. People who walk outside in the rain get wet. People on scooters are getting blown over. It's windy. Here's a picture of some rain in Taipei and a sign that fell on a car. There were the obligatory pictures of people shopping.

I can't remember if it was CNN or Wunderground where I first saw the phrase "over two meters of rain." In less than two days. That means, if I was standing in a hole 2 meters deep, I would be in over my head. I think that's what that means, though it sounds like a story problem, and I shut down at the start of a story problem.

The problem with this story is that I had no idea what was going on while it was going on. Saturday morning, we had a below average breakfast at some new place on Chung Ming Rd and I remarked dryly at the number of leaves the staff was clearing from their treeless tiny front yard.

Then, I started noticing the stories pop up on Facebook. The first was of this hotel falling into a river.

The guy who works at the Starbucks where I occasionally go for decaf told me that he was about100m away from the building when it went down. He was sure there was no one inside at the time. Good news as earlier reports had said there were perhaps a hundred trapped inside. He noted that most of the people staying in the hotel that day were tourists from China. No Comment.

The video above was our first clue that the effluvia was hitting the air moving device in Southern Taiwan. Then there was this one of the water under the high speed rail in Tainan County.

But it really wasn't until Monday, I think, that the gravity of the situation began to flow into our heads. Monday when we were all going back to work. Monday when the party was over.

700 missing in one  single village.

Rajen Nair, a writer based in India, emailed looking for some first-hand accounts of the storm, and as I could only tell him what happened inside my apartment, I enlisted the fine folks at Facebook who came up with Tony Coolidge who writes about Living in Taiwan at LivingInTaiwan. His story is in The Guardian here.

Nair followed up with this harrowing survivor's account

After the storm passed, and before fingers began to be pointed with any vigor, Michael Turton, the omniscient blogger of The View From Taiwan, collected some serious money in a very short period of time and headed south with a van packed full of cleaning supplies.  His updates are a testament to the hard work of volunteers who flocked to Tainan and Pingtong in the days after the landslides. In those early days that the Central Government was refusing aid offered by both the US and Japan, I was glad that American expats in Central Taiwan were able to put together a few drops in the bucket.

Now, ten days after what is now to be known as "8-8" (which is Taiwanese Father's Day) the first American military aircraft in 30 years has landed in Taiwan delivering much-needed supplies. The international community is being allowed to respond. The international press is not being kind to the Mayor/President/Mr Ma who is just over one year into his term as head of Taiwan. His lame excuse five days after the worst typhoon related disaster in five decades was that he had "warned residents to evacuate and they just didn't." Echoes of the mess in New  Orleans were that most residents of the villages that have been wiped off the map were the elderly and the very young.

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