Memorial for storm survivors

Shiao Lin – A handful of survivors joined Buddhist and Taoist clergymen on Thursday to pray for the souls of the dead a year after floodwaters spawned by a monster typhoon triggered massive landslides and buried their isolated village in southern Taiwan.

An estimated 500 people died in the early hours of August 9 2009, in the modest agricultural community of Shiao Lin when torrential rains accompanying Typhoon Morakot loosened the facades of two nearby mountains and sent tons of rubble crashing down upon their homes.

All told, the storm took some 700 Taiwanese lives, making it one of the worst natural disasters in the island's history.

On Thursday the narrow valley where Shiao Lin used to stand was a sombre sea of mud, punctuated by pools of water created by a series of recent downpours.

Chanted from sacred writings

Under a leaden gray sky, 20 Buddhist monks and Taoist priests chanted from sacred writings, as eight typhoon survivors crowded around a makeshift altar covered with food and floral offerings to placate the souls of the dead.

One of the survivors was 47-year-old farmer Ong Rei-chi, who lost 10 family members in the disaster, including his mother, his wife, and three of his children. Ong survived because he was away from the village in a nearby agricultural shelter when the landslide hit.

"I remember there was this big boom," he said. "When I think about it my heart still aches. There are just no words to describe what I feel."

A year after Morakot struck, it is widely seen as a defining moment in the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou, the Taiwanese leader who entered office just over two years ago pledging to turn the corner on the island's contentious relations with China, from which it split amid civil war in 1949.

Reducing tenstion

To a considerable extent Ma has succeeded, reducing tensions across the 160km-wide Taiwan Strait to their lowest level in six decades, amid a series of groundbreaking economic and commercial initiatives.

But repeated charges that his government reacted too slowly to Morakot's fury, costing scores of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage, have marred his accomplishments, undermining his standing in public opinion polls and contributing to a series of stinging electoral defeats for his ruling Nationalist Party.

Mindful of the setbacks, Ma has pledged a massive effort to rebuild the agricultural heartland that Morakot destroyed.

Chang Heng-yu of the Cabinet Reconstruction Office said on Thursday the effort was going full steam ahead.

Reconstruction

"The government has appropriated $4.69bn for reconstruction work, including rebuilding homes and infrastructure," he said, adding another $787m was coming from private donations.

One of the most active private disaster relief groups is Buddhist charity Tzu Chi, which dispatched hundreds of volunteers to southern Taiwan to help in rescue work in Morakot's immediate wake.

Tzu Chi spokesperson He Min-chang said on Thursday the group is now constructing 750 homes for flood survivors on land provided by the government.

"We've employed some 800 survivors to help with the project," he said.

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