Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Is Evacuating 50,000 Townfolk ridiculous?

Is Evacuating 50,000 Townfolk ridiculous?
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
A Translation
August 12, 2009

In one particular county, Typhoon Morakot buried an entire town. The county executive later said that evacuating several towns would have been a major undertaking involving 40,000 to 50,000 people. What official, he asked, would have the temerity to evacuate an entire town based on a 1000 mm rainfall forecast?
One newspaper spoke out on his behalf. Its headline read "Ridiculous!"

This editorial examines how the minds of people in office think. We have no desire to become caught up in a war of words. Although everyone knows which county executive we are referring to, he will nevertheless remain nameless. Allow us to engage in a little Monday morning quarterbacking. The town has already been buried under a mountain of mud. The tragedy has already occurred. But suppose this county executive had decided to evacuate the town, and significantly reduced the number of fatalities that followed, would his evacuation still be characterized as "ridiculous?"

The public watches television. It has seen how officials in the southern United States evacuate entire populations as a result of hurricane forecasts. Often the evacuation takes place one or two days before the hurricane strikes. The skies are completely clear. But the highway leading out of the city is backed up for miles. The car tops are piled high with valuables. Tell us, is the sight of millions of people evacuating a city under completely clear skies ridiculous?

One must not of course be too hard on that particular county executive. When hurricanes strike the United States, entire towns and entire cities are often wiped out. Taiwan has not experienced such a tragedy in several decades. In the mind of the county executive, an entire town being wiped out was inconceivable. Naturally evacuating an entire town never even occurred to him. The county government probably didn't even have procedures in place for the evacuation, rescue, and resettlement of tens of thousands of residents. Even if the county executive had decided to evacuate, persuading the villagers would have been no easy task. Perhaps this is what the county executive meant when he said "What official would have the temerity to evacuate an entire town based on a 1000 mm rainfall forecast?"

On the other hand, Taiwan is such a tiny island. In the face of devastating natural disasters, the president and premier are for all practical purposes, county executives and city mayors. County executives and city mayors are for all practical purposes, village and borough chiefs. County magistrates and city mayors have responsibilities for disaster prevention and response that they cannot shirk. As for the cases cited above, they cannot blame tardy weather forecasts. After all, the Central Weather Bureau increased its rainfall forecast for the county in question to over 1000 mm that same day. During such emergencies, county executives have been effectively demoted to the level of village and borough chiefs. They must be alert to the region's soil and water conditions. They must bear greater responsibility and authority for typhoon risk assessment than local residents. If a county executive does not dare to evacuate when the forecast is 1000 mm of rainfall, how about when the forecast is 2000 mm of rainfall? Is this a lack of courage? Or is it a lack of intelligence or ability?

Besides, Kaohsiung County, Pingtung County, and Taitung County officials, to their regret, were also late to evacuate. Why was Tainan City able to make the bold decision to evacuate? Did Mayor Hsu Tien-tsai make a sacrifice to the gods?

After the painful lesson of the 8/8 Flood, officials must change their thinking. The keyword in meteorology today is "extreme weather." It refers to causeless, random, "off the chart" numbers. As noted earlier, for county executives, the notion that an entire town could be wiped out was inconceivable. That is why they considered evacuation of an entire town ridiculous. But today "extreme weather" is the norm. Officials must have the courage to make bold decisions. This applies not merely to disaster response strategies. It applies especially to future hydrological projects, whether they take into account "extreme weather" conditions. For example, can the town be promptly evacuated? If the town can not be evacuated, can one order the ground floors cleared, allowing the flood waters to wash through? Such schemes may sound "ridiculous" on Taiwan. But they are commonplace throughout areas prone to flooding in Southeast Asia. Otherwise, if one merely rebuilds in the same location, only to be flooded again next year, wouldn't that be even more "ridiculous?"

Furthermore, the role of officials must change. As pointed out earlier, when a major disaster occurs on the island of Taiwan, the president becomes a county executive or city mayor. County executives and city mayors become village and borough chiefs. Village and borough chiefs become scouts at the point. Normally the primary responsibility for water and soil conservation rests with county and city governments. In the event of a disaster, someone must decide whether to evacuate. The responsibility must fall on the shoulders of county executives and city mayors, and not officials at other levels. During past typhoons, we have seen county executives and city mayors go door to door urging residents to evacuate. This time, county executives and city mayors should reflect on their failure to respond in a timely manner. They can hardly excuse themselves by claiming that decisive action would have been "ridiculous." They should recall television images of officials in the United States evacuating entire cities!

Heaven and earth have no compassion, and regard the people as straw dogs (sacrificial beasts). Officials are unwise, and regard the people as straw dogs. The public detests officials who pass the buck back and forth in an attempt to disown responsibility. The entire government, from the central government level to the village level, should learn from its mistakes, and engage in thorough introspection. Since weather changes are so "ridiculous," future national safety, water and soil conservation, ecological protection, urban and regional infrastructure, disaster prevention and response measures must be expanded and upgraded. Independence, courage, and vision are needed to build a new, ecologically sound Taiwan.

2009.08.12 05:16 am











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