August 14, 2009 / 6:44 AM / 10 years ago

Taiwan leader says more than 500 dead in typhoon

(To see how storm is affecting economy, click on [ID:nTP216924])

* President under fire for perceived slow response

* Officials say they did their best in grim weather

* Morakot caused about T$30 billion in losses

By Ralph Jennings

TAIPEI, Aug 14 (Reuters) - Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, under mounting pressure over his government’s response to a devastating typhoon, on Friday estimated that more than 500 people had died in flooding and mudslides.

Survivors and the main opposition party say efforts to rescue people stranded in remote mountain villages have been slow or insufficient, criticism that could hurt the image of the president and his party ahead of year-end local elections.

Ma gave his estimate of the death toll, a jump from the official count of 118, at a national security meeting, as local officials estimated 200 to 300 had died in a mudslide that levelled most of Hsiao Lin, a village in the south.

Typhoon Morakot struck Taiwan a week ago, but the scale of the disaster only started to become clear this week after the storm had weakened over neighbouring China.

Increased pressure on Ma, who was elected in 2008, could drain support for his Nationalist Party (KMT) in city and county elections in December, analysts say.

Some are also calling for Ma to reshuffle his cabinet and may think long-term that he "doesn’t care", said Hsu Yung-ming, a political science professor at Soochow University in Taipei.

"The whole thing looks in disarray in the public’s opinion," said Alex Chiang, who teaches political science at National Cheng Chi University in Taipei. "They were caught off-guard."

Officials say they could not have reacted faster because of sustained rains in the disaster area, grounding rescue helicopters.

"From a victim’s point of view, waiting just one minute is too late," Premier Liu Chao-shiuan told a news conference.


After days of dispatching helicopters to rescue survivors and distribute emergency food in Hsiao Lin, authorities opened a road into the stricken village on Thursday. [ID:nSP319394]

But it was unlikely that anyone trapped on Monday in the landslide had survived, said local township chief Liu Chien-fang.

In the neighbouring village of Liu-Guei, more than 200 people had fled while 32 were feared buried. Only roofs of houses could be seen as most of the structures had been buried in mud.

Morakot caused about T$30 billion ($910 million) in losses to agriculture and infrastructure and reconstruction is expected to cost about T$120 billion. The government spent about the same amount after a 1999 earthquake that killed 2,400 people.

The foreign ministry issued a donation request list to foreign countries that includes 1,000 prefabricated houses and helicopters that can lift trucks and excavators. U.S. officials said they were looking at ways they could help.

In China, which claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan, companies and charities had raised more than 100 million yuan ($14.63 million) in donations, the official Xinhua news agency said.

"Taiwan’s disaster has tugged on the heartstrings of mainland (China) compatriots," an official was quoted as saying. "The mainland is willing to provide whatever help it can."

The typhoon has knocked out 34 bridges and severed 253 segments of road in Taiwan, with repairs expected to take up to three years in the worst spots, the transportation ministry said.

A swollen lake in the mountains of southeastern Taiwan began to spill its banks on Friday shortly after people downstream had evacuated, the National Fire Agency disaster centre said.

In Cishan, a storm-ravaged town of 41,000, both road bridges had collapsed, smashing houses and taking down cars. Residents jammed a footbridge which remained standing.

"My store has been closed for days because I figured no one could get to it," said Chen Chih-lu, who owns a furniture shop in Cishan. "My guess is 90 percent of us are digging out of mud."

(Additional reporting by Pichi Chuang in Liu-guei, Taiwan; Roger Tung in Taipei and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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