As rescuers battle to reach thousands of people still trapped in mountain villages in Taiwan in the aftermath of Typhoon Morakot, the country’s President has estimated more than 500 people may have died in flooding and mudslides.
Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, under pressure over his government’s response to the aftermath of the devastating typhoon, warned that the island-wide death toll of 117 is likely to rise substantially as fears mounted for those missing.
“With 117 confirmed deaths from the typhoon and some 380 people feared buried by mudslides in Hsiaolin village, Taiwan’s death toll could rise to more than 500,” he said at a national security meeting.
As anger over the government’s response mounted, President Ma vowed the whole nation would mobilise to help the victims. “The government will overcome all obstacles to accomplish the mission,” he said.
The typhoon dumped over 120 inches of rain when it hit last week, setting off flooding and mudslides which tore through houses and buildings, ripped up roads and smashed bridges.
Mr Ma’s administration has been criticised for being too slow to see the magnitude of the crisis in which hundreds of villages were cut off by mudslides, leaving them only accessible by air.
Dozens of helicopters have been criss-crossing the mountains and ravines of the region delivering food and water, and airlifting survivors.
The scale of the crisis has overwhelmed the authorities and many victims have complained they have received no help for days.
In Meilang village, Kaohsiung County, two desperate young men waved a large yellow banner which said “Government please help the people in Meilang and Changshan” every time a helicopter hovered above them.
One of them, surnamed Hsieh, said he left his work to return to his home village to find 270 villagers who had been missing for a week.
“The mountain here is shaking, it is going to collapse,” he told AFP, asking why rescue teams had neglected their villages.
“Taiwan is cursed. This has never happened before.”
The island’s southeastern Taitung County government estimated that nearly 3,700 people in its townships were still cut off by Friday morning.
Meanwhile, the emergency operation centre in central Chiayi county reported that it believed nearly 9,000 people remained stranded there.
And in Kaohsiung, the hardest-hit county where most of the rescue missions are concentrated, troops were working to evacuate another 2,000 people, county magistrate Yang Chiu-hsing said.
But Mr Yang said some 300 people were feared dead as they were believed to have been buried under the rubble of Hsiaolin village.
Rescue workers said they had to risk their lives wading through rivers to transport relief items such as biscuits, canned food and instant noodles.
In Hsinfa village, a hot-spring resort where bodies were found buried by mudslides, volunteer rescuers had to snake through some 18 kilometres (10.5 miles) of roads ravaged by flash floods and three half-blocked tunnels.
But they said they were still prevented from getting relief supplies across to the trapped victims because of a toppled bridge.
“This is of course no easy task,” said Liang Tien-tsai, a former chief of Hsinfa.
“But we have to get the things done as quickly as possible, as there are still around 300 villagers isolated by mud and they badly need help.”
Morakot was the worst typhoon to strike Taiwan in 50 years. In August 1959 a typhoon killed 667 people and left around 1,000 missing.