Taiwan president under fire over typhoon response

Critics say Typhoon Morakot is Ma Ying-jeou's Hurricane Katrina. He has been faulted for weak leadership in dealing with a devastating storm that killed at least 127, with hundreds still missing.

Pichi Chuang/REUTERS
At a news conference in Taipei Tuesday, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou said his administration will investigate officials for being slow in rescue efforts after Typhoon Morakot, Taiwan's deadliest typhoon in half a century.

Fingerpointing has begun in earnest in Taiwan, as the island struggles to recover nearly a week and a half after its deadliest typhoon in at least 50 years.

Many here pin blame on the government, especially President Ma Ying-jeou. The disaster has become his Hurricane Katrina, with critics – including some from his own party – faulting him for poor leadership, bumbling crisis management, and a tin ear for public concerns.

"He's been hurt badly by this crisis," says George Tsai, a political scientist at Chinese Culture University and supporter of Ma's party. "He and his government turned it into a political crisis because people think he didn't show enough compassion."

Typhoon Morakot hit the island late on Aug. 7, dumping a record 9-1/2 feet of rain over a three-day period, especially on mountainous areas in the south. As of Tuesday afternoon, the official death count stood at 127, but 307 more are missing and feared dead. Damages are estimated at $3 billion.

In the mountain village of Shiaolin, some 250 people are believed to have perished when the mountainside above them collapsed under torrential rain. Survivors in that area are blaming a water-diversion project for making their communities more vulnerable to flooding and mudslides.

Hundreds of people remain stranded without food or supplies in other areas of Taiwan, cut off by caved-in or buried roads.

President Ma has been faulted for a cautious, by-the-book response. He declined to declare a state of emergency, and said the cabinet should lead the crisis response, not him. Critics say he failed to fully mobilize the military, and passed the buck by faulting local governments and even villagers themselves.

Ma has insisted that heavy rains prevented more robust search-and-rescue missions; one military helicopter crashed on just such a mission, killing three rescuers.

Ma came under especially harsh criticism for attending a wedding on the Friday the storm hit, and a baseball game Aug. 15 to throw out the first pitch.

Meanwhile, Taiwan's foreign ministry sent a cable, since leaked to the local press, instructing its representatives abroad to decline all foreign aid except cash.

Damage control

Ma shifted into damage-control mode late last week after the scope of the disaster became clear. He has made several public apologies for the government's slow response, and on Sunday, in an interview with CNN, said he would take "full responsibility."

The government also did an about-face on aid, accepting a US offer of supplies and heavy-lift helicopters that can take earthmovers into remote areas. Australia has donated water-purification tablets and other supplies, and China has sent prefabricated homes.

The extent of the political fallout remains to be seen. The deputy foreign minister, who was in charge of the ministry when the typhoon hit, tendered his resignation Tuesday over the ministry's "confusing" instructions on accepting foreign aid.

Despite calls for his resignation, Ma has ruled out stepping down for now, and says a review to be completed by early September will determine which, if any, officials should be fired.

Mr. Tsai says that if Ma doesn't win back public support in the coming weeks, his party could suffer in year-end elections seen as "midterm" test for his leadership. He may also lose political capital he needs to pass his agenda, notably a cross-Strait trade deal, says Tsai.

Water project under scrutiny

Meanwhile, residents of one disaster-hit area say a water-diversion project helped create the conditions for a devastating mudslide, according to local press reports. The head of the Water Resources Agency on Monday rejected that charge, according to the Taipei Times.

The project aims to divert water into the Tsengwen Reservoir – Taiwan's largest, and the main source of water in southern Taiwan – from an adjacent basin. The project involved dynamiting soil, which villagers say made the area more prone to landslides.

Two civil engineering experts interviewed by phone Tuesday said they didn't have enough information to assess those charges.

But both said that weather patterns had changed in the past 10 to 15 years, causing more extreme cycles of flood and drought, and that education and flood evacuation drills were needed.

Lin Mei-ling, a civil engineer at National Taiwan University and former head of the government's "debris flow" task force, said "It [the diversion project] may have been a factor, but probably not a significant one."

Intense rainfall – more than four inches per hour for a day – was probably the "major cause" of the disaster at Shiaolin, she says. Ms. Lin added that the area around Shiaolin was "geologically weak."

Lin said the government should put more emphasis on an ongoing project to map areas at a high risk of landslides. "It's difficult to fix every place – it's too expensive," says Lin. "We've already developed a system to identify potentially hazardous areas."

In a press conference Tuesday, Ma said the government would consider "red alerts" and forced evacuations for high-risk areas. "You can't really fight nature," he said. "When there's a mudslide, the only way out is to evacuate."

But Lin pointed out that a law passed after a devastating 1999 earthquake already gives the national government's emergency response center the authority to order evacuations.

In the sad case of Shiaolin, either that order was never given, or it was ignored by local authorities. Investigations in the coming weeks will likely show which.

Wire material was used in this report.

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