However, in the south of the island it was a different story. There is plenty of good reporting on the web to show just how dreadful the disaster has proven in several areas. What I'd like to do in this post is just jot down a few thoughts after returning on August 23 from a short relief mission.
One way Tzu Chi University has been involved in disaster relief was by sending a group of about 40 volunteers to Dawu and Daniao villages in Taitung County on the South East coast. I felt very lucky to sign up in time since a lot of students were keen to join; some students had traveled for up to five hours by train to get to Hualien from their homes in Taipei and on the other side of the Island. We were to help in the cleanup of Dawu elementary school and, time permitting, also assist affected familes in Daniao. As we loaded computers, food and water as well as cleanup essentials onto our bus early on Friday 21 August I was already impressed by how many preparations had already been made before I arrived on the scene.
It was not until we had been on the road for three hours and had reached Taimali that we saw the true scale of the change to the landscape caused by mudslides and the consequent damage to houses and to the road, which had only opened to buses the day before. Looking through the bus window was not quite like watching disaster reports on TV, but for some reason what I could clearly see still did not seem completely real to me.
Arriving at the school we discovered that the clay brought into classrooms by the flood had already been hosed out by the wonderful students of Tzu Chi College, so we knew we would have clean and dry places to sleep - in the classrooms and library of the school. We immediately set to work strightening the trees which had been blown askew and cleaning out the smaller gutters, which were full of the mud which had been in the classrooms!
After a simple dinner prepared on-site by volunteers I settled down to sleep on the ceramic-tiled floor of the library. No problem dropping off - the smell of books is so soothing, but I woke amid a dream of being crushed against a wall by a large reversing truck. My guess is that the hard floor mingled with the sound of someone's watch alarm set that one off!
The next morning we began to clear out the large drain on the school perimeter. Though the soil and clay in it only occupied a third of its depth, clearing 150 meters or so took us right through the day. I guess we cleared about 30 cubic meters - all with picks and shovels. One student said it was the first time he'd used a spade, but I'd never have guessed!
In the afternoon some of us went to Daniao village to help dig out the back of a house. Again, the team from the college had done most of the job. All I could do was help re-sweep the kitchen floor and wonder at how unflappable the family were.
The situation in Dawu was much less serious than that at Daniao. Dawu villagers had to deal with wet ground floors and ruined furniture, those in Daniao were perhaps lucky to still have homes. There had been an enormous mudslide which had reached the top of the village and - miraculously perhaps - stopped, pressed up against a church. The slide was made up of earth, shale, larger rocks and bits of trees and had evidently flowed out of an interior valley rather than directly down the side of the local peak. 'Our' house was next in line to be crushed, and the neighbouring house was certainly unfit to live in. Standing on the roof of that damaged house I tried, but failed, to imagine what it might be like to be in such a place in the middle of an afternoon and to see and hear such a mudslide approach one's home.
The depth of the mudslide is clear in the photo, and part of the lower end of the was safe to walk on. Only when I got onto it did I fully sense the size of it - perhaps 8oo meters across at that point. That evening, while looking at the photos taken by a colleague I was struck by the difference in scale between the piles of mud we had dug out and the mudslide I had just seen. I got to wondering how that village could be made truly safe how many 'man hours' would such a job require when even a heavy digging machine appears like an ant on a tennis court. I think I have tried to avoid imagining the other mudslides, the ones which crushed and tore people to pieces. I just hope that in future lessons can be learned about where projects of whatever size - villages, reservoirs, roads, fields of crops - are located.
There are many people providing relief - in addition to the emergency services and the military, the red cross and other NGOs are also active. This disaster has also shown what individuals can achieve when they are connected online by twitter, plurk etc and by mobile phones. Nevertheless, if you are interested to see something of what Tzu Chi is doing to help in the disaster areas, you might like to look here and click on the link to headlines for a specific date (20090812 is a good example), and then click on the small orange streaming button above the programme details (if you want to view using windows media player you have to login - I haven't tried that way yet). Some friends have asked how to donate to Tzu Chi's relief effort, I think most relevant online pages will be in Chinese, but the USA centre has set one up in English here just for this disaster. Apparently there is a small HQ in London, the details are here.