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Typhoon buries Taiwan village in mud

August 11, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — Mudslides triggered by the punishing rains of a late summer typhoon buried people sleeping in their homes in a remote Taiwanese village and toppled buildings in Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, raising fears that hundreds may have perished.

The confirmed death toll from Typhoon Morakot stood at more than 50 early today, including 22 killed in the Philippines, but the numbers are likely to rise significantly as bodies are dug out of the mud.

In Wenzhou, an eastern Chinese city, a four-story apartment building collapsed Monday night.

With Taiwan experiencing the heaviest rainfall in 50 years, mud poured down the mountains northeast of the southern city of Kaohsiung. One tiny village, Shiao Lin, was almost entombed as mud rose high enough to cover rooftops.

"For those who are not rescued by now, there is no hope," said the duty officer at Taiwan's national disaster relief center Monday night. The man, who gave his name as Zheng, said that the victims were likely to be elderly people and children because many of the able-bodied adults live and work outside the village.

Some mudslides took place in the predawn hours Monday, catching sleeping villagers unaware.

In Cishan, police officer Wang Cao-hong said the battered bodies of two women had been found in a torrent of mud, along with a severed foot.

"We think the bodies came from upstream because their clothing was torn off by rocks and debris," Wang said.

So far 50 people have been rescued from the village and 150 more accounted for, but hundreds are believed to be missing. Rescue efforts were hampered by the washed-out roads and the unstable ground, which made it impossible to land helicopters near the village.

Typhoons are a seasonal hazard in the region and Morakot -- meaning "Emerald" in Thai -- was not the most powerful of the year. But it lasted for days, bringing an unusual amount of rainfall that saturated the soil. The Taiwanese weather service said that in some counties, up to 80 inches were recorded in a 48-hour period.

In a memorable image of the typhoon, Taiwanese television videotaped a six-story hotel toppling over into a raging river with a tremendous splash. The Chin Shuai Hotel, in Taitung county, had been evacuated earlier.

In Wenzhou, where the apartment building collapsed at 10:30 p.m. Monday, a fire official said that most residents had fled earlier, so it was hoped there would not be a large death toll. Residents nearby told Chinese television that they'd heard rumbling and that the building crashed within seconds. As of midday today, six people had been pulled out alive, one in critical condition.

The heavy rains caused flooding along a wide swath of southeastern China, forcing 1.4 million people to leave their homes. The Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs on Monday estimated direct damage at $1.3 billion.

In Zhejiang province, a group of eight hikers who wanted to see the floodwaters was swept away. One of the hikers was killed.

With roads and bridges washed out and cars underwater, residents were traveling in boats, and, in places where the water was shallow enough, in the traditional three-wheel pedicabs.

Weather forecasts said Morakot would continue tracking north through eastern China, but lose strength and turn into a tropical depression with winds of less than 39 mph. The system was expected to bring downpours north of Shanghai.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

Special correspondent Xiao Aijun in Cishan, Taiwan, and Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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