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Koreas' Typhoon Toll Rises

Disaster: As authorities in the South confirm 138 deaths, the North says scores were killed. Damage estimate is put at nearly $735 million.

September 03, 2002|BARBARA DEMICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — As the skies cleared over the Korean peninsula Monday, helicopters swooped low over large swaths of the countryside entombed in mud and found devastation from a weekend typhoon far greater than originally believed.

South Korean authorities raised the toll to 138 dead and 77 missing, while the first word filtered down from secretive North Korea that it had not been spared. Although there were apparently fewer casualties in the North, Typhoon Rusa seems to have complicated the Communist country's already precarious food situation.

"The typhoon left scores of people dead, many missing," North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency reported Monday. "A large area of farmland went underwater or was washed away, making it hard to expect any harvest or crops from there."

In South Korea, the brunt of the storm hit Kangnung, a resort on the east coast squeezed between mountains and the sea. Nearly 3 feet of rain fell Saturday and Sunday, triggering flooding and large landslides. Most of the victims were buried alive in the mud or swept away by the rushing waters.

"The water's come up to my chest" were the last words that the manager of an agricultural cooperative, Lee Sang Guk, 51, said to his wife over a mobile telephone as he was out inspecting flood damage. His body was found 22 hours later floating down a nearby stream, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported.

Television footage shot from helicopters showed red-tiled roofs peeking out from a sea of mud. Bridges, railroads and highway overpasses had been wrenched into pieces by winds of up to 127 mph. A man navigated his way with a pole through the flood waters on a piece of Styrofoam as though it were a gondola.

The rains washed away graves at a hillside cemetery near Kangnung.

"My mother's grave--where has it gone?" cried Choi Young Cha, an elderly woman interviewed by the Korea Broadcasting System.

Across the peninsula in Geumsan, a small city known for its ginseng production, large quantities of the precious medicinal root were ruined by flooding. Meticulously cultivated rice paddies throughout the country also were destroyed.

The overall damage was estimated by the National Disaster Prevention and Countermeasures Headquarters at nearly $735 million, although insurers said it would take at least a week to come up with a reliable assessment.

Major television networks and newspapers launched fund-raising drives to help the victims.

Before hitting the peninsula, Typhoon Rusa--the Malay word for "deer"--swept over the Japanese island of Okinawa. Two U.S. Marines, Lance Cpl. Richard Moore, 24, and Lance Cpl. Beatriz Rodriguez, 20, were reported missing Friday night from a beach on the island and are presumed dead.

Rusa was the deadliest typhoon to hit the Korean peninsula since 1987, when Typhoon Thelma claimed 345 lives. But South Korean meteorologists said this latest typhoon was more powerful. Older Koreans still reminisce about the worst typhoon of modern times, Sarah, which killed more than 800 people in 1959.

Building standards are far better in flood-prone South Korea than they were when the country was rapidly developing in the years after the 1950-53 Korean War. But the high toll of casualties and property loss from Typhoon Rusa is likely to fuel demands to improve the quality of the infrastructure to better withstand storms. South Korea's relative wealth and modernity make the extent of the devastation surprising.

According to statistics released Monday, the storm washed away 274 bridges, severed railways and roads in 174 locations, knocked down 10,000 electricity poles and flooded more than 17,000 homes.

By Monday night, more than 1 million people remained without electricity and nearly 500,000 had no drinking water. The South Korean military was mobilized to distribute bottled water, bread, blankets and instant noodles to victims in isolated areas by helicopter.

This year's monsoon season has been particularly deadly throughout Asia, with rain-related disasters taking a total of more than 2,000 lives in China and India. Another typhoon, known as Sinlaku after an Indonesian goddess, is reported to be heading toward the Korean peninsula and is expected to arrive later this week.

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