As the disaster unfolds, it is clear that many lives have been lost, homes and buildings buried, crops and livelihoods destroyed. Communications have been severely disrupted and many mountain villages even now remain inaccessible. People are very angry over the government’s slow response and the excuses made by government officials trying to justify their incompetence and arrogance. However, rather than resorting to protests and vandalism to vent their anger, rather the people of Taiwan are instead standing up and volunteering to go to the affected areas themselves and help. By car, by train, by bus and bicycle, the people of Taiwan are on the move. All are heading south to volunteer in the relief effort, wellington boots on their feet and shovels in their hands. Homes and schools inundated by thick layers of mud are now being cleared by students on their summer holidays, by older people newly retired, by church congregations, by groups of neighbours who have come together to help others.
All disasters have a certain amount of chaos in the relief effort and this one is no exception. Where to go, how to help, what to take, where to stay, who to consult? The best place is one particular website set up ‘because we are fed up with the government, and if we wait for them to act, we’ll be waiting for ever.’ It makes fascinating reading. Offers from people in the north to dig, to translate, to cook, to entertain children, to help in any way ~ are matched by organizations in the south looking for volunteers, by local people who offer a bed for the night, by recommendations and suggestions. The attraction of going south to volunteer is greatly added to by the free High-Speed Rail tickets available to all volunteer organizations. It cuts hours off the journey and oh, it is so much more comfortable!
Now, the Bishop of Taiwan, the Rt. Rev. David J. H. Lai is encouraging all the churches in the diocese to send teams of volunteers to help. Unexpectedly I found that this past weekend I was suddenly going to be free. I felt moved to offer my services and after a whole day of chaos and wondering whether I would be able to go at all, it suddenly all came together at the last minute and I went off down to south central Taiwan on the High-Speed Rail taking a student with me. We ended up in Chia-Yi, staying at St. Peter’s Church, joining a group of students from St John’s University and a few other hangers on. A great group to be with!
There followed a weekend in the Chia-Yi County Tax Building. Yes the very same place where everyone goes to pay their taxes, and no I am not joking, we really did spend virtually the whole weekend there. And as it was a Saturday the air-conditioning was off, so it was sweltering hot. There in the midst of all those Tax offices is the Chia-Yi County Red Cross, and what a marvelous organization it turned out to be. By the end of the weekend we had moved almost 4,000 boxes of all shapes and sizes sent by the general public (free postage) as donations to the relief effort. The Post Office vans spent all day driving back and forth delivering boxes to us, and we spent all weekend moving them up to the third floor, recording the sender’s details, checking the contents and sorting them all out. Boxes of clothes, baby items, cans of food, milk powder, rice, instant noodles, candles, water bottles, toothpaste, you name it, it was there. We worked in pairs, one recording, the other slashing open the box and sorting the contents. Have knife will cut, that was my role!
On Sunday, yesterday, 2 of us went with the Red Cross up into the mountains to deliver some of the goods. Chia-Yi County stretches from the coast, where the Tax Building, County Hall etc are located, right up into the central mountain range as far up as the top of Taiwan’s highest mountain, Yu-Shan. We drove for well over 2 hours. Helicopters were constantly flying overhead carrying supplies. As we went up, so the road worsened, in many places only cleared enough for single file traffic. We took mainly plastic containers for petrol, instant noodles, cans of food, and candles. When we reached Da-Pu Village, up beyond Tzeng-Wen Reservoir, we could go no further. Up and beyond, the road was impassable except by jeep, and even then everything would have to be carried by hand for more several hours up to the mountain villages.
Beyond Da-Pu the people are from the Tsou tribe of indigenous people. Many of the people severely affected by this typhoon are indigenous people, and most are Christians. Many have shared their testimonies in front of news cameras on TV in the last few days, and can testify to God’s amazing grace in the face of Taiwan’s worst typhoon in 50 years. They mostly belong to Presbyterian and Roman Catholic Churches, and there must have been severe damage to many church buildings and communities. Restoration and repair will take months and even years.