08/25/2009, 00.00
TAIWAN
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PIME missionaries among the victims of Typhoon Morakot

by Paolo Spaghero
Fr. Paul Spanghero recounts the miseries and tragedies wreaked by Typhoon - the most violent in the past 50 years - that caused the deaths of 292 people and left 395 missing two weeks ago in Taiwan. The national economy is sorely tried and displaced people struggle to survive. The priest also reveals signs of hope.

Taipei (AsiaNews) - Typhoon Morakot hit Taiwan with  unexpected violence, the most powerful in more than half a century. Within hours, the typhoon released more than 3 metres of rain upon the island, flooding homes and roads, destroying bridges and infrastructure. Yesterday the government of Taipei confirmed that 292 people were killed and 395 others are still missing. President Ma Ying-jeou, harshly criticized for the slow pace of relief efforts, admits the final death toll could exceed 500 victims.

More than 25 thousand people are homeless, having had to abandon their houses. To date, while several roads and houses have been repaired, at least 6 thousand homeless are living in tents or makeshift shelters.

Floods of mud and water destroyed 136,400 homes and inflicted damage to agriculture for 14.4 billion Taiwan dollars (about 300 million euros).

Fr. Paul Spanghero, a PIME missionary, is parish priest in a mountain area in southern Taiwan, among the hardest hit by the typhoon. Here's what he wrote to his confreres a few days ago:

My dear friends, As you know we have been visited by typhoon (Chinese: taifong, "the big wind"). But more than the wind it was the rain that betrayed us. The mountains shelter us from the first but they absorb a   disproportionate amount of the second. It was hoped that the immense whirlpool of crazed and  water laden clouds would pass quickly through the island as they usually do. But this time they  slowed almost to a stop and. .. the floodgates of heaven opened up. In my area and in some valleys more than 2 metres of rain fell in the space of one day and one night. The result: 80% of bridges and roads destroyed or impassable, long stretches of roads down into the valleys devoured. Entire villages wiped out by rock and mud that become deadly liquid rivers, invading everything. But what is most painful is the heavy loss of human lives this caused.  In a village 12km as the crow flies from here [the village of Hsiaolin] 500 people were buried in their destroyed houses. The few survivors do not want the new hill that has been formed above the carcass of the village excavated. They want to transform it into cemetery and memorial. But if it is not dug up, there is an (almost certain) chance that a future flood will destroy it,  scattering the remains to the sea.

The area of my parish was hit hard, as were other neighbouring villages. Although the dead (found) are in the dozens, and many more missing, none of my Christian community have died neither have they sustained serious injuries. Some, however, have seen death up close. Collapsed bridge that linked the two main banks of the town (clearly visible on  Google Earth, when the bridge was still standing) and the only road is impassable from both upstream and downstream.  In fact the downstream side was literally eaten up by the river for a distance of over 3 km. Now we must travel along an old route laid down by the Japanese 80 years ago, along a very precarious open path on the muddy shore of the river, just meters from the still menacing waters. Soldiers have brought us water to drink, restored electricity and telephone lines and evacuated by helicopter nearly all of the (indigenous) inhabitants from the completely isolated high mountains, starting with the old, the sick and wounded. We still lack water to clean and wash ourselves (they say it will be restored tomorrow). However we still have stocks of rainwater in buckets. The hardest thing (for me and for the 4 sisters) was the 5 days we spent without electricity, when we were forced to use church for light (never throw them away!) without even fans to cool ourselves. I never went to bed so early, with my candle, reciting the breviary in a humidity akin to the Amazon jungle. We were without water and importantly without news, even from adjacent villages, that were unreachable.

Some local people lost, or who fled into the woods in the wake of the floods,  used smoke signals to attract the attention of overflying helicopters. Others used billboards hung between river banks above roaring impassable torrents, to communicate urgent needs. That's how we learned just days later, that 5 km from here, in an isolated village full of hot springs (which make the soil more friable) 32 people died buried alive. They found only 6 bodies. The mud and the rocks reach the second floor. A Korean team brought dogs and equipment to smell for the dead but the daily rains made them unusable. 4 Catholic families live in the area, all safe, two by pure miracle.

The small town of Chishan, 35 km from here, at the mouth of a valley parallel with my own village and where there is' the Redemptoris Mater seminary, was also largely invaded by water and mud and still is almost completely isolated. The seminary was not damaged and is now used by the diocese as a centre for collecting aid. The problems we face are immense. The future of the entire mountain area, centred on the cultivation of tea tourism high mountain and on the industry of hot springs is a big question mark. The mountains are crumbling, it is safer to live or build houses or roads. Between a typhoon and the other, nature has more time to heal the wounds of the huge forests precipitates. Many Christians now have my job.

Dear friends, I do not want to give the impression that everything is negative. As always, each typhoon (or tragedy) that strikes brings to bear on the soul of Taiwan a lesson from the heavens, a sort of dressing down (especially for leaders) that nurtures in our heart the desire to start over. For us Christians, Morakot was a word from God revealing the truth (in short our human frailty). But the Lord has been good to us, we have survived unhurt amid so much suffering and loss. For the Assumption, on 15 August, we were able to say Mass in the main church, damp but clean after the flood (only 5-7cm of water and mud). For tomorrow [23 August], we even managed to find some flowers to decorate the altar. A greeting to all my brothers in Christ.

Yours in the Lord

Fr. Paul Spanghero (Luo Baolu, shenfu)
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