Making a Comeback from Morakot

Typhoon Morakot was one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit Taiwan. Photo: PiChi Chuang

Some areas of southern Taiwan have recovered more rapidly than others from the powerful 2009 typhoon with its deadly flooding and landslides.

BY STEVEN CROOK AND ERYK MICHAEL SMITH

Typhoon Morakot, which smashed into central and southern Taiwan on August 8, 2009, was the deadliest, most destructive storm in Taiwan’s recorded history. The typhoon dumped 2,361 millimeters (93 inches) of rain onto the island’s mountains in 48 hours – a near global record.

The flooding and mudslides killed 681 people and caused billions of New Taiwan dollars in property damage. Thousands were forced to abandon homes on or beneath fragile slopelands. Three-quarters of those displaced were members of the indigenous minority, Taiwan’s most disadvantaged ethnic group.

Now, nearly a decade later, some communities devastated by the disaster are still struggling to recover, while others have experienced a speedier return to prosperity.

The hot springs town of Baolai in the mountains of Kaohsiung, for example, has seen local commerce return to only about 60% of pre-storm levels. More fortunate has been the Alishan National Forest Recreation Area in Chiayi County. Although visitor numbers plunged in 2010 due to storm damage to the main access road, 2011 and 2012 were banner years and the area has continued to be a strong attraction. This April, Kaohsiung’s Namasia District enjoyed perhaps its largest-ever influx of visitors when firefly-chasing tourists made the most of a four-day weekend.

In the wake of the 2009 disaster, the government sprang into action mobilizing the military for search-and-rescue and cleanup operations. It also established the Morakot Post-disaster Reconstruction Council, while the Legislative Yuan approved a Special Act for Post-Typhoon Morakot Disaster Reconstruction. On top of NT$22 billion diverted from other central-government programs, the lawmakers made available a special budget of NT$116.5 billion for reconstruction.

The government moved with unusual speed to alleviate the suffering of those who had lost relatives, homes, or livelihoods. The year’s typhoon season was far from over, and the danger of another storm compounding the damage was very real. “If there had been another disaster, the public would rightly have blamed the government for moving too slowly,” says Chern Jenn-chuan, who served as deputy CEO and then CEO of the Morakot Post-Disaster Reconstruction Council.

Chern, who had played a key role in the rebuilding that followed the severe September 21, 1999 earthquake (known as the 9-21 quake), says the Morakot Post-Disaster Reconstruction Council managed to avoid some of the mistakes that were made after that incident.

“After 9-21, we arranged for people to stay in temporary houses, but after 10 years some people were still living in those substandard structures. Those people were poor, so they weren’t able to move out,” says Chern, currently CEO of the Tang Prize Foundation and Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering at National Taiwan University.

The Reconstruction Council moved quickly to identify which communities were in danger, and to plan their resettlement in conjunction with the NGOs and private enterprises that had promised to help build the new villages. More than 80% of the 3,500-plus permanent-housing units – abodes that can be passed on to descendants, remodeled, or even rebuilt, but never sold or rented to outsiders – were completed by the second anniversary of the disaster.

Recognizing that relocation is invariably dislocation, Chern explains that the authorities resettled households within their village of origin whenever possible (some “villages” in the mountains cover over 80 square kilometers). If that was impossible, they were relocated within the same township. And if that could not be done, a site was found as near to their previous living areas as feasible.

Immediately after Morakot, thousands of residents were evacuated to military bases and other temporary shelters. According to Chern, resettlement negotiations were grueling. “Indigenous people don’t trust the government very much, and they don’t trust Han people very much,” he says, adding that he understands their anger when it seemed the government wished to take away their ancestral lands.

The authorities were bound by law to respect the culture and social structure of the affected communities, most of which were indigenous. “We had to talk to them until we’d reached a consensus. Then we could organize relocation,” he says. But because indigenous village meetings are governed by custom rather than clear rules, achieving a final decision was very difficult, he notes.

The government came under fire for how it handled the relocation of mountain villages. The speed of the process meant that villagers were pushed to make decisions “at a chaotic and traumatic time, while some of them were still searching for family members,” says Jeanette Yi-Jen Shie, an assistant professor at the National Kaohsiung University of Hospitality and Tourism.

Rumors and misinterpretations of the rules interfered with villagers’ decision-making, and the authorities’ habit of dealing with individual families at a time when many communities had been scattered damaged tribal cohesion, explains Shie, who has been conducting research in indigenous communities in Kaohsiung and Pingtung since 2006.

“A few villages decided to raise funds within their own communities to buy their own land and to rebuild their second homes as a community, without giving up their mountain homes so as to avoid government interference,” she says.

“Government agencies also failed to realize that the issue of relocation harmed not only those villages, but also mountain ecology,” as poachers took advantage of the sudden abandonment of mountain villages. “However, a series of organic farming and ecotourism programs have helped villagers return to their mountain homes and establish livelihoods,” she says.

According to Shie, one of the most successful resettlement efforts was at Rinari in Pingtung County’s Majia Township. “First, the three villages that relocated here acted mainly on their own decisions. Second, after World Vision helped build the new houses, the NGO stopped any form of intervention, and left the villagers to decide how to arrange their homes and their common future,” she says.

Shie contrasts this approach with how the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation managed the Da-ai Village it built in Kaohsiung’s Shanlin District. “As a religious group, they employ strong compulsory discipline” which tends to disregard indigenous culture, she says. The result is that “the villagers continue to see themselves as victims, reflecting how outsiders view them, and this has led to a passive attitude toward community-rebuilding and regaining their identity,” she says.

Because Rinari’s community-rebuilding process has greater autonomy and is more respectful, “Young people are more likely to return home to explore opportunities for cultural and culinary innovation relating to community-oriented tourism,” Shie says.

According to Shie, reliance on governmental or other forms of external aid “probably slows down the process of recovering” because “external rules and policies disrupt village leadership and opportunities to reach community consensus for long-term progress. This deprivation of self-determination continues with respect to job opportunities.” Morakot victims, she points out, are often left with very few options apart from working on farms owned by private companies or for NGO-led tourism projects.

Chern agrees that Rinari is perhaps the most successful resettlement community, while pointing out that many of the other new villages are fully occupied. Survey results compiled by the National Science and Technology Center for Disaster Reduction, which is supervised by the Ministry of Science and Technology, indicate a sense of satisfaction among those affected by Morakot. According to survey data published in 2017, it took more than two years before disaster victims considered their general situation to be “OK” – but by 2015, they were even more satisfied in terms of transportation, facilities, and community identity than they had been before the disaster.

Household-registration statistics suggest that some Morakot-impacted districts have recovered much better than others. The population of Namasia has not quite returned to pre-disaster levels, but it seems to have stabilized. Wutai Township in Pingtung County, which like Kaohsiung’s Maolin District is a stronghold of the Rukai tribe, has bounced back after a post-Morakot dip.

In February this year, Maolin had 1,977 residents, more than at any time since 1981, even though one of its major tourist attractions – the natural hot springs at Duona – was destroyed by the typhoon. But according to staff at the Maolin National Scenic Area Administration – the government unit overseeing tourism in Maolin, Liugui, and nearby areas – an aboriginal-themed open-air bathing center will one day be managed by local residents. It is still reportedly “in the very beginning stages of construction,” however, and no completion date is available.

Liugui – the district that includes Baolai and the smaller hot-springs village of Bulao – has seen its population drop from 20,786 in 1981 to 12,881 in February 2019, but the typhoon does not seem to have accelerated the rate of decline. Kaohsiung’s Jiaxian District also struggles to keep inhabitants from moving away, though it has no problem attracting day-trippers. Throughout a recent long weekend, the town center was packed with visitors buying taro-flavored ice creams and pastries. The population was falling well before mudslides caused by Morakot obliterated the district’s Xiaolin Village, killing 491 of its residents, and the downward spiral continues. 

The greater outward migration from Han-dominated areas like Liugui and Jiaxian than from indigenous communities like Namasia could be explained in part to the generally higher educational levels of the Han Taiwanese, better preparing them for careers in urban areas. There is also anecdotal evidence suggesting that many indigenous people prefer to live in their tribal communities, rather than in cities where they would be a minority that – in the past if not now – has suffered discrimination.

One of the few indigenous areas where the population continues to be lower than it was a decade ago is Kao-hsiung’s Taoyuan District. The only access to Taoyuan is via Highway 20, a road also known as the South Cross-Island Highway.

Before Morakot, it was possible to drive on Highway 20 from Tainan to Taitung. The road traverses Yushan National Park, and its highest point is 2,731 meters above sea level. In addition to tourists eager to see spectacular mountain vistas, it was used to transport farm produce from East Taiwan to markets on the western side of the island.

Landslides in the wake of Typhoon Morakot buried much of the highway, and the central government’s enthusiasm for rebuilding it has waxed and waned in the years since. Officials have said the road could be reopened to through traffic in early 2021, but residents of the area worry that another storm could push the date back.

“After 4 p.m., fog often blankets the mountains and makes diving dangerous,” says sexagenarian Zhong Xiang-gui, a former chairperson of the Liugui Tourism Recreation Association. Before Morakot.

“A lot of money used to come into Baolai just from stopovers,” he recalls. Jiaxian also benefited from way-station business.

Asked if the NT$2 billion reportedly being spent to reopen the South Cross-Island Highway could be better spent elsewhere, Chern says: “At first, we didn’t intend to spend much money there. Instead, we just waited for ‘nature to calm down.’ But many people earn their livelihoods along that road, and for the government it’s a strategic road.”

Return of the hot springs

Zhong can take some of the credit for Baolai making a partial recovery, even without the South Cross-Island Highway. “The floods buried the old hot springs under two or even three stories of mud and rock,” he says. After Morakot, the Kaohsiung City government spent a great deal of time and money drilling around the town, searching for geothermal waters.

“Nothing came of their efforts,” Zhong says. “There was definitely some selfishness involved. Hotel owners lobbied the government to dig near their places of business. Finally, I went to the authorities and said, ‘I don’t own a spa or a hotel, so I’m a neutral arbiter.’ We then went and talked to elders throughout the area, and finally a spot was located.”  

Since early 2017, hot-springs water has been pumped from the new well, and piped to local businesses for a fee that one hotel owner said came to only NT$100 per tonne.

Zhong still mourns the loss of the free riverside hot springs, which drew people keen on bathing and barbecuing. A replacement of sorts is Baolai Flower and Hot Spring Park, a cozy place where you can soak your feet for NT$50. The park opened in December 2017, but Zhong admits it has yet to become a big tourist draw.

Legal issues are holding Baolai back, Zhong asserts. “Over 40 bridges in the area were washed away during the floods, and I commend the government for rebuilding them pretty quickly. But you’re not going to see real investment until potential investors are sure who owns the land.”

Inconvenient transportation is another factor, with Kaohsiung Road 133 between Baolai and Bulao still nowhere near reopening. But those who do make it to this part of Taiwan can often find accommodations for as little as NT$1,500 per night.

The recent reopening of Liugui’s Tengjhih Forest Recreation Area is another reason for businesspeople in Baolai and Bulao to feel optimistic. Prior to Morakot, the 770-hectare forest area was popular with hikers, many of whom like nothing more than soaking in a hot spring after tramping up and down a trail.

Zhong is not the only local to praise the replacement of washed-away bridges with structures notable for their higher piers, deeper foundations, and longer spans – all features making them less prone to collapse. But the allocation of other funds has been more controversial. The privately-run Eighteen Arhats Rest Area, which takes its name from a string of hills said to resemble Buddhist saints, received government money to construct a campground and a bridge. The area’s management say the arrangement was above board, but some wonder if the reported NT$20 million was a wise investment.

It is hard to see why campers would pick this campsite over spots deeper in the hills. It is just meters from a busy road, and was empty when last visited. The dead-end bridge is pleasant enough, but it merely crosses a gully and does not appear to be attracting visitors. Lacking even an elevated spot from which sightseers can take pictures, it serves no function. The economic logic behind the government’s funding of this project is far from obvious.

Still, Chern finds much to be proud of in the response to the Morakot disaster. “Our post-Morakot reconstruction efforts are renowned around the world,” he says. “Before Morakot, Linbian and Jiadong in Pingtung County, and Qishan in Kaohsiung, suffered frequent flooding. Since reconstruction, it seldom happens, because we sought long-term solutions.”

At the same time, there is a limit to his optimism. “This kind of disaster will come again and again in the future – of that I’m sure,” he says. The only question is how well-prepared Taiwan will be the next time. 

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