Saomai's trail of shattered lives

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 August, 2006, 12:00am

The destructive power of Typhoon Saomai, which claimed hundreds of lives and wiped out thousands of homes as it swept through Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, was a reminder of how powerless humans are in the face of nature's forces. And the aftermath of the storm is far from over.

Gusting at 270km/h, Saomai is the strongest typhoon to hit China since 1956. When it struck on August 10, it pounded buildings with a force of 250 kilograms per square metre, enough to knock down all but the sturdiest structure, said a mainland climate expert from Zhejiang.

The death toll rose to 441 yesterday after more bodies were found. Corpses are being discovered daily. Up to 4 million people are believed to have lost their homes.

In Shacheng, the port of Fuding city, in Fujian, the worst hit area, officials earlier reported 218 dead and 74 missing. Locals insist the number of casualties is much higher.

'This is the strongest typhoon many of us have seen in our lifetime. We are still an underdeveloped region and our facilities and resources are limited. We did what we could, but this is a natural disaster,' said Wang Dongmin, a village party secretary in Shacheng.

If a superpower like the US can have a major city like New Orleans humbled by Hurricane Katrina, what could have been done to protect the fishermen's wooden huts against nature's fiercest tempest? As Shacheng residents start to pick up the pieces after their initial shock and grief, more and more are questioning whether authorities were well-enough prepared to cope with the typhoon and how effective the rescue efforts were.

Hostility towards local authorities is starting to reach boiling point.

When Fuding's mayor visited Shacheng on Wednesday, he was confronted by fuming villagers and had to flee. 'He asked them why they didn't listen to the government's warning. That just angered everyone,' said a witness.

A retired schoolmaster who persuaded his family to retreat inland said residents should have been evacuated. 'Most people died in the harbour, not on the land. It is incredible that they didn't evacuate people from the coast to the higher ground.

'The National Observatory had warned us beforehand that this was going to be the strongest storm in decades. But the local authorities did nothing to evacuate the fishermen. That is really a shame.'

But he added that local fisherman must also bear some responsibility. 'Many young men had never experienced such a strong storm and they did not take it too seriously,' he said. 'But the local officials should shoulder most of the blame. They are well informed and they should know better. There is no excuse,' he said.

The Fuding government said it tried to warn residents through televised announcements and more than 80 million mobile phone text messages. But most residents in Shacheng are fishermen who live on their boats with no televisions.

Despite the government's efforts, some villagers said other ways to alert people to the danger should have been used.

'They should have warned the public through loudspeakers,' said a resident of Nanzheng village in Shacheng who lost his elder son. 'That damn thing blasts as loud as thunder every morning, asking us to study this leader's speech and that leader's spirit. But they never used it to warn us about the typhoon.'

And then there is the question of why the government's rescue efforts were too little to late. It was not until Tuesday - four days after Saomai hit - that the Fuding government started to organise ships to search for survivors and bodies. By then, many bodies had drifted to the open sea or were disfigured. The chance of finding survivors was minimal.

Qiu Tingmeng, the official in charge of Fujian's disaster prevention work, acknowledges that the first week is crucial for any rescue mission.

'We are now focusing on finding bodies in the water. The best opportunity [for recovering bodies] is the first week, after that it's very difficult,' he said.

Shacheng authorities said they did not begin rescue efforts sooner because of a lack of equipment. Even navy vessels were damaged by the typhoon.

Tucked away in mountains, Shacheng is connected to the outside world by a meandering and dangerous pot-holed road, which is difficult to navigate on a dry, sunny day. It became impassable after the typhoon. Authorities say that is why rescue supplies arrived late.

Many parts of the fishing port have been without electricity or water supplies for days, and people have had to survive on whatever they could salvage from the ruins.

Fuelling the public's fury is the perception that the local government is attempting to cover up the true scale of the disaster. Immediately after the typhoon, a local newspaper put the total death toll at two. Given the signs of destruction everywhere, the absurd figure was treated as a cruel joke.

'They know they have messed it up and they want to downplay the disaster. Those reports are like insults to us and to the deceased,' said fisherman Chen Wencheng, who lost his brother-in-law. Even official media found the initial figures provided by Shacheng authorities unreliable. Last Friday, the Ministry of Civil Affairs told Xinhua that local governments must not lie about the number of casualties in natural disasters.

While the immediate destruction caused by Saomai is appalling, the challenge for the government now is to quickly come up with a plan to help the fishermen and victims' families get back to normal.

Overnight, the fishing industry in Fuding was almost destroyed. Of the 2,600 fishing vessels in Fuding, 952 capsized and 1,594 were damaged, Mr Qiu said. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their livelihoods overnight and face uncertain futures.

Most of the victims in the typhoon were men aged between 20 and 35 - the breadwinners of their families. They left behind helpless widows, orphans and elderly people who urgently need outside help and support.

The Fujian government promised to give 5,000 yuan to each affected household. Given the scale of the tragedy, many believe it is purely symbolic. 'We have borrowed heavily from outside to buy fishing boats and build fishing farms,' said fish farmer Yang Jiafu.

'Every household at least has several hundred thousand yuan of debt to pay. I don't know how we can repay those debts and how we can start life again.'

Before the storm, Fuding residents had enjoyed a relatively prosperous life thanks to the thriving fishing industry. Each household could make around 50,000 yuan a year, Mr Yang said. But now a lot of people believe they have no option but to leave their homes.

'We will go to Guangdong to find work. My sister has already gone to Shenzhen to work in a massage parlour. I think I won't be able to see my parents for quite sometime,' said Qiu Tianbao, a young fisherman.