Saturday, May 14, 2005

Rain, rain, rain... 2001 flood flashbacks

Recently it has been heavily raining in Taipei. Whenever there's heavy rain I think about the floods in 2001 and the impact to Kate's family. Here's an email I sent describing the events in September of 2001:

It's been almost two weeks since northern Taiwan experienced the worst flood it has ever seen in over a hundred years. Over 80 people died, and nearly 200 were injured or missing. Major sections of the subway in Taipei are expected to be shut down for at least six months. On the news we saw parts of northern Taiwan where peoples' homes were washed away, sometimes with the occupants still inside.

For us, it started Sunday night around 8:00 PM and the rain was pouring outside when the news first announced that people living in most northern parts Taiwan, including Taipei, would have Monday off. This isn't all that uncommon during a big typhoon, but it doesn't happen very often either; when the city shuts down for a day that's a lot of lost productivity for an economy that can't afford too many lost productivity days. Since I could sleep in the next day, I thought "why not stay up a little later." I watched CNN, called friends in Canada, and then surfed the net. It was past three in the morning when I went to bed. Kate's parent's bookstore, which is located in the basement of a building, didn't even enter my thoughts. I went to sleep thinking about what we could do with Griffon cooped up inside all day. Meanwhile, the rain continued to pour...

After it felt like I had just closed my eyes, I was woken up by the sound of a ringing phone; the alarm clock read 7:30 AM. I knew it had to be one of Kate's relatives calling at this time and sure enough it was Kate's dad. He asked for Kate and I was more than happy to pass the phone to her. After Kate hung up the phone, she told me her parents were at their bookstore and told me to immediately go over with their uncle. I threw on some clothes, and walked across the street where the uncle lives. As I went outside the rain was still pouring. I jumped into the uncle's SUV (lots of clearance and big tires) and after some initial confusion at the parents-in-law's, I grabbed a hose (the word for pipe and hose is the same in Chinese) and we were on our way.

As we headed along Roosevelt Rd. besides the fact there was still a lot of rain and no traffic, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. We turned right on Xinsheng S. Rd and as we passed Hoping E. Rd everything still looked normal. We continued up Xinsheng with Da-an park on our right side, and suddenly the road was so flooded there was no way we could make it to the next major intersecting road (Xin Yi). There were already a couple adventurous/dumb drivers who had went for it, but were now sitting in their stalled vehicles.

We took a left; a quick right and drove for awhile, and then turned right again. The small street that now lay ahead of us would lead us very close to Kate's parent's bookstore. However, on both sides of the street, handlebars of scooters broke the surface of the water, while people walked by, waist-deep in water. My uncle-in-law looked at me and said he didn't think we could make it. I told him we could walk, but then he decided to go for it. He scrunched his lip, gripped the steering wheel firmly, and pressed the gas pedal. We slowly plowed ahead and at the deepest part, water splashed over the hood. After a very long time, we made it to an elevated section of the road and soon arrived at the bookstore.

I walked down the stairs and saw about a couple of centimeters of water on the floor. Kate's mom said they had already moved all the lower stock to higher places. I walked around the store searching for the source of the incoming water. May be if I found the source we could plug it somehow or divert it. After I finished walking around the store, I still hadn't seen where the water was coming in. I headed to the back of the store where they have a small office and as I turned the corner, I saw fountains of water gushing out of the far wall. There were at least three places the water was pouring in. Kate's younger brother was using an electric pump to pump water into the adjacent bathroom toilet. The plug was connected to a high wall socket, and half the cord was submersed in the water. As I told him how dangerous it was, I grabbed the cord and placed it high out of the water.

Back in the main part of the store, the water had noticeably risen in a relatively short time. I looked on the wall and fixed a point that was a few inches from the water surface. I started getting some boxes ready and after around five minutes, the water level had already surpassed the point. We started grabbing what stuff we could, lugged it to the stairs in the next door apartment building.

When the water level was approaching lower-calf level it suddenly struck me; the power was still on. I looked up and Kate's parents, her uncle, and her brother were all in the water. I told Kate's dad that this was a very dangerous situation and that he should turn off the power. He agreed and after flipping the breaker switch, the lights went out and some weak emergency lights and flashlights became our only light source. Meanwhile the water continued to rise...

At the top of the stairs the metal door had come down about half way and we had to squeeze to get under it. Kate's dad turned the power back on to raise the door. However, after the door was raised, the power was still left on. I said to Kate's dad, you have to turn the power off. He said to me it was really inconvenient because then you couldn't really see what you were packing. I didn't argue back or just turn the breaker off myself. Living in this society has changed me more than I had realized.

After awhile when I saw the water level approaching a socket in the wall, I said to her father, with what must have been a trace of panic in my voice, "Don't you believe me? It's really dangerous to leave the power on." He replied, "But we can't see anything." I told him, "Not being able to see is one thing, but this situation is really dangerous." By this time, the water level was no more than a few centimeters from the wall socket. When he relented and turned off the power, the water was a centimeter or two away from flowing into the two little holes of the outlet.

We frantically grabbed and hauled as much stuff as we could, but the water level was rising too fast. At one point, I was in the back office placing their phone, fax machine, and stereo on the highest shelf I could and as I was trying to leave, the door was difficult to open because of the water. It wasn't much longer before the water level was approaching waist-level and big magazine racks were starting to float around when Kate's parents told us to forget about it and just leave. One of the last things I grabbed was a bunch of scissors. We probably managed to get about one fifth of the stuff.

As we waited outside tired, dirty, and slightly numb, we watched helplessly as the water level continued to rise and then totally engulf the bookstore. It took just over an hour for the water to go from a couple of centimeters to past ceiling level. While we were all waiting around we saw fish swimming around in the street and then later another one swimming in the bookstore.

Considering what had happened that day, Kate's parents were holding up extremely well. Kate's mom was quite stoic, while her dad joked and laughed about it with neighbors. There were lots of people coming around to offer their condolences and share similar stories. A guy that lived in the apartment where all the stuff was currently sitting on the stairs, offered us a room to put things. A woman brought us food and water, and later some sandals for Kate's dad as he had lost his during the flood.


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