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August 17, 2009

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Aid arrives as Taiwan still feels devastation

THE first shipments of overseas aid arrived yesterday as Taiwan struggled to reach more than 1,000 people still stranded a week after its deadliest typhoon in half a century.

As plastic sheeting for makeshift housing arrived from the United States and water-purification tablets came from Australia, taxi drivers in Taipei pitched in as well, driving rice and instant noodles to the island's hard-hit rural south.

Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou, who announced that the death toll from Typhoon Morakot was likely to exceed 500 on Friday, offered another apology for his government's slow response to the disaster after families said more people could have been saved.

"Sorry we were late," he told people in Pingtung County, adding he would take full responsibility in getting the remaining work done well.

More than 3,000 villagers had been airlifted over the weekend, leaving about 1,000 still stranded in the ruins of flooded and mudslide-hit villages. Altogether, 35,000 villagers have been rescued from 44 hard-hit villages in the south, officials said.

Thousands of displaced survivors remained at temporary shelters in stadiums and tent cities a week after the typhoon hit, unleashing massive landslides and flooding that killed more than 500 in southern and central Taiwan.

Resettlement of an estimated 7,000 people whose homes were destroyed could speed up after prefabricated houses arrived from Britain yesterday, with more due from Chinese mainland today, the island's disaster relief center said yesterday.

An US transport plane arrived at the Tainan Air Base in the south with 6,800 kilograms of plastic sheeting for makeshift housing, the disaster relief center said.

Taiwan authorities said helicopters from the US that can carry cranes and backhoes were expected to arrive soon to help in rescues and in the rebuilding of roads.

Tents and sleeping bags donated by German charity groups were scheduled to arrive in a day or two, the relief center said.

Heroic trek

Morakot dumped more than two meters of rain and stranded thousands in villages in the mountainous south. As of Saturday night, 21,199 villagers had been ferried to safety. The storm was the island's deadliest weather disaster since 1959, when more than 600 perished in a typhoon.

The rescue operation has relied mainly on helicopters because bridges collapsed and roads were washed away. At the Cishan landing zone in the south, a main drop-off point for those rescued, hundreds have waited anxiously for days hoping to find relatives.

Among the survivors was 67-year-old Huang Jih, who walked hours to safety across rugged terrain, carrying his mother on his back. Now he is worried about how he can support his family of seven.

"I have lost all my things," his 102-year-old mother Tseng Jih told ETTV, crying on her makeshift bed. "What am I going to wear when I die?"

CTI TV showed a two-year-old girl munching on a rice dumpling because the temporary shelter she stayed at in Kaohsing had run out of infant formula.

The girl, rescued by relatives from her mud-buried home, apparently did not know her parents had died.

In Shiao Lin, the worst-hit village where 380 out of a population of 600 were buried under tons of rubble, the red-clad rescue workers searched the ground for human remains.

Shiao Lin was obliterated last weekend when rains spawned by Morakot loosened the foundations of two nearby mountains and sent their facades tumbling down.

Friends and relatives of the victims gathered at the site of the village on Saturday, burning incense, carrying photos of their loved ones and weeping inconsolably under a gray and ominous sky.

Walking unsteadily near the remains of the Tai Tz Temple - one of only two buildings still standing - Liu Jin-fung shook his head repeatedly. He said the storm had changed his life beyond all recognition.

"My parents, my brothers, my uncles, altogether 40 of my family members were killed," he said. "How can I plan for the future? Everything is gone from my world."


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