After a Long Night

Super Typhoon Nepartak landed in Taiwan at the town of Taimali, Taitung County.

Overnight the flourishing sugar apple crop, almost ready to harvest, was scattered all over the ground. Even if farmers took up their shovels and replanted the trees, it would be three or four years before there would be another harvest. Farmers cannot help but shed tears, nor can their neighbors.

“I’ll help you, you help me.”

A sugar apple orchard lies in ruins after Typhoon Nepartak. The storm inflicted damages estimated at NT$800 million (US$25 million) on farm crops in Taitung County, with sugar apple cultivation suffering the greatest loss.

Typhoon Nepartak made landfall in the rural town of Taimali, Taitung County, in the early morning of July 8, 2016. Having peaked earlier at category 5 on the Saffir–Simpson Scale, Nepartak’s destructive winds terrified Taitung residents and left a path of devastation in their wake.

Two days later, a colleague and I working for the Tzu Chi Monthly magazine left Hualien at 6:00 a.m. on a southbound train to cover the disaster in our neighboring county. Hualien had escaped Nepartak largely unscathed, so when we looked out the train window, we saw serene scenery, greenery, and flourishing trees. Nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary. But as we approached the county line, scenes of raw destruction began to emerge—rows of fallen trees and downed power lines greeted our eyes. The damage became progressively uglier the deeper we traveled into Taitung County, closer to the more heavily devastated regions. The storm seemed to have laid waste to every farm and orchard. Support structures for betel leaf plants were blown down, torn nets hung loose, and fruit trees were snapped. Sugar apples and dragon fruit littered the ground.

When we got off the train, we were greeted by the empty frame of the station sign on the platform. The signboard that used to identify the station, “Taimali,” was nowhere to be seen. It had been blown off.

Yang Zhen-zong (楊振宗), a local resident, picked us up at the station. He shook his head as he told us, “I’ve never experienced a typhoon as monstrous as Nepartak. It beat even Typhoon Morakot.” (Typhoon Morakot in 2009 was the deadliest typhoon to impact Taiwan in recorded history.) Of all the areas in Taiwan, Taitung suffered the most severe damage from Nepartak, and nowhere in Taitung was the damage as great as that in the town of Taimali.

After Typhoon Nepartak, farmer Zhan Yi-xian (詹益賢, right) and his entire family worked together to salvage their betel leaf plants and to rebuild their net house. Photo by Huang Xiao-zhe

Nepartak, the big one

When Typhoon Nepartak landed in the town of Taimali, the village of Xianglan at the mouth of the Taimali River was the first to be smashed. The whole village—houses, farms, and everything else—was left in a complete mess. It looked almost like a war zone. Many roofs especially could not withstand the force of this super typhoon.

The typhoon had no sooner moved on than Xiao Hui-ming (蕭惠明), the village head, started working nonstop, including checking on the families in his village and accompanying government officials to assess the damage to farm crops. His wife stayed at the temporary shelter for victims to sort donated goods and distribute them to those who needed them.

Xiao choked up with emotion several times as he described to us the horrors of the typhoon and the sorry scenes he witnessed afterwards. He said that when the typhoon was at its strongest, he fought to keep a window in his home from being blown away. But the wind was simply too much for him, and he had to give up after fifteen minutes. The window went, and then so did the door. Next went the roof tiles. He, his wife, their son, and his mother huddled in a corner for safety and waited out the storm.

The typhoon finally began to ease up after 6:00 a.m., and Xiao ventured out of his house to look around. He saw row upon row of toppled trees, broken roof tiles, and other debris littering the streets. The roads were too cluttered to allow vehicles to pass through; he could not even get his scooter through. He instead walked down the road and checked on each house in turn. He paid special attention to older people living alone. An old man had been injured by a falling object, so Xiao called an ambulance to take him to Taitung Mackay Memorial Hospital.

According to preliminary estimates, about a third of the 300 households in the village suffered damage to their homes, including 84 homes whose roofs were badly damaged. Rainwater made its way into most houses in the village. Crops such as betel leaves, sugar apples, and dragon fruit were all but totally wiped out. Farmers were heart-broken.

In the aftermath of the storm, Tzu Chi volunteers contacted Xiao and asked him to call on residents to take part in a clean-up-the-neighborhood campaign starting on July 10. Volunteers paid cash to the villagers taking part in the cleanup, and they also gave between 10,000 and 30,000 Taiwanese dollars (US$300 to $950) to each family that had suffered damage.

The Red Cross and other charities were also present to offer cash. Some people donated emergency goods and drinking water. Some even drove food trucks from Taipei, at the opposite end of Taiwan, to cook hot food for victims. The kindness of these people and organizations touched the hearts of the villagers.

Li Tai-ping returns to his home to find it in a mess. Nepartak also thoroughly damaged his crops.


We went with Tzu Chi volunteers to visit some victims.

Mrs. Dai’s house had taken quite a beating. Her living room leaked badly, and there was a gaping hole in the roof above her kitchen. No wonder her 76-year-old heart was tied up in a knot. She had put out a few buckets to catch the leaks, and she had moved her gas range so that it would not be spoiled by the rain.

Her parents moved from Hsinchu, northern Taiwan, to Taitung when she was just a year old. She grew up and got married in Taitung. She and her husband worked hard as farmers, and they saved enough money to build the house where she now lives. After her husband died in his 50s, she worked as a farmhand and did other odd jobs to support her four children, who are now grown and living elsewhere.

She had planned to live in that house for the rest of her life, but Nepartak had damaged it so badly. She worried that she might not be able to go on living there, but then her youngest son and his wife promised to fix up the house for her.

“Actually, I thought about abandoning the house after the typhoon,” she said. Only her youngest son returned home to help her clean up. Her other children did not bother at all. She was put off by their lack of care. But then she saw how enthusiastic Tzu Chi volunteers were in helping strangers like herself and her fellow villagers. That really warmed her heart and gave her the encouragement she needed to pick herself up. She even joined the volunteers in cleaning up the village. As she worked, she seemed to forget her anxiety and sorrow. When asked how she felt, she said, “Wonderful!”

We then came to the home of 83-year-old Wu Jin-cha (吳金茶). She and her husband had moved to Taimali from Zhanghua, central Taiwan, more than half a century before. They worked as farmhands and laborers, doing whatever work they could find. They needed the money, so she would not refuse even work as hard as moving stones for the building of embankments.

With hard work, they managed to save enough to upgrade their straw hut to a wooden building to accommodate their growing family. In 1979, they moved up yet again to a brick house with a tiled roof, where she has lived ever since.

Wu’s husband passed away long ago. Her first son, Li Tai-ping (李太平), and his wife have lived with her for a dozen or so years. They happened to be out of town on the night of the typhoon, leaving Wu alone at home. As the high winds raged, the roofs over their living room and three bedrooms were all blown off, allowing rain to fall in. Wu was forced to move out of her bedroom into another room to stay dry. Though the typhoon made a big mess of her house, she was fortunately not hurt.

Li hurried back home as soon as the storm had passed. He almost cried when he saw the damaged house. Then he went to check on the avocados that he had grown on the 2.5-acre tract of land that he had leased from the government. It was a total loss. “I invested two million dollars [US$63,000] in the plantation, and it’s all gone,” he said. He could no longer hold back his tears.

Su Xin-lan lost her betel leaf crops in the typhoon. She had borrowed money to set up her farm. Now she has no revenue to pay back her debts.

Getting out

Su Xin-lan (蘇心蘭) was another typhoon victim. She used to work for betel leaf farmers, helping them put up trellises and other plant-support structures, do odd jobs, and harvest the crop. After she had learned the ins and outs of the trade and saved a little capital, she struck out on her own as a betel leaf farmer.

She leased a small lot, about half an acre, for 600 American dollars to cultivate the plants. She borrowed money to purchase fertilizer and the materials necessary to put up a net house for the plants. She built the net house herself, and she worked hard to care for the plants.

But just six months later, Nepartak struck. Su had only had one harvest, and now the typhoon had ruined everything. Her heart broke. Fate had just dealt her another setback, a big one.

Her husband was injured in an automobile accident seven years ago. His injuries required brain surgery, which left him epileptic, reliant on medications, and unable to work. She became the sole provider for the family, a responsibility that kept her working very hard.

Her life has not been easy, but she still cheerfully agreed when volunteers asked her to help mobilize her neighbors to help clean up their own communities and to guide volunteers to visit typhoon victims. She said, “It’s better to get out of the house than stay home and feel sorry for myself.”

Su knew quite a few elderly people who lived on the seashore. Her intimate knowledge of them made it much easier for volunteers to get closer to the elderly when they visited their homes and to reach them at more personal levels.

She led us to the home of an 89-year-old woman. The woman had lost two sons to accidents, one more than a decade earlier and the other just seven months before. The typhoon brought some rain into her house, but other than that there was no major damage. The strong winds gave the old woman quite a scare though. Su warmly asked her how she was doing and reminded her to take good care of herself. Volunteers gave her cash to help her recover.

When we arrived at the next home, Mr. Lin, in his 80s, was climbing a ladder up to his roof to patch leaks. Concerned about his safety, volunteers urged him to get down immediately. He did so, surprised by the large group of visitors. He soon turned melancholy as he told the volunteers that his wife had been hospitalized for a fall during the typhoon and would undergo surgery the following day. He wanted to be at the hospital to care for her, but he could not because he was afraid that their house might leak. He wished that he could attend to both matters at the same time. The volunteers determined that this family would need long-term care from Tzu Chi.

As for Su, her house was damaged as much as those that she visited with the volunteers. It would leak whenever it rained, and she had been quite bothered by having to clean up again and again after the rain. It just never seemed to end. She had bought cheap plastic sheets to cover her roof, and she kept the sheets in place with broken pieces of roof tiles. She was not happy about the damage caused by the typhoon, but the visits to other victims helped her feel less alone as she tried to keep things together after the disaster.

A typhoon victim talks with a Tzu Chi volunteer in Xianglan Village, where 84 homes were damaged, 40 of them no longer fit to live in.  Photo by Huang Xiao-zhe

 The moment of truth

Up to the time of our visit, Su had not yet mustered enough courage to visit her betel leaf farm. She was afraid to find out how badly the storm had ruined her plants. But on this day, due to our visit, she decided to take us there to check it out.

As we walked towards her farm, we first came across fields of blackened sugar apple trees, stripped almost entirely of leaves. “These trees are now useless,” Su mourned. “All of them will have to be dug up and removed.”

Her steps became increasingly heavier as we got closer to her farm. Still she managed to tell us how much money she had spent on fertilizer and how much work and effort she had spent putting up her net house. But when we were about 50 meters (55 yards) from her farm, she suddenly began to sob. Then the sobs turned to outright crying, as if she wanted to release all the worries and frustration that she had bottled up until then.

Our hearts went out to her, but we could not come up with a single word of comfort for her.

“It really hurts to see the devastation,” she declared. “All my plants are down. All the light-duty frames and nets will have be removed and rebuilt. That will cost at least NT$800,000 [US$25,000]. I’m doomed.”

She went on after she had regained her composure: “My betel leaves were so big and vibrant. Everyone told me that I’d done a superb job taking care of the plants. Before the typhoon, I’d work for other people from morning to about 2:30 in the afternoon; then I’d come home and work on my own plants. I’d put on my headlamp and work well into the night, sometimes till as late as two in the morning. But what have I got for all that hard work? I was about to enjoy the fruit of my labor, but then everything was destroyed….”

Not only has her labor yielded next to nothing, she has also ended up with debts to pay back. She does not have any savings to draw on, so she will have to continue to work for others so she can repay her debts and support her family of three.

Fortunately, her daughter will graduate from nursing college in a year, and she works in the summer to help ease her mother’s burden. She is Su’s biggest comfort.

The thought of her daughter soothed Su. She wiped away her tears. We knew she will bounce back and move forward despite the setback.

Guarding their homes

Typhoon Nepartak blew away half the roof of the house of Ms. Lin, 45, a single mother of five. Its three bedrooms and kitchen were exposed to the rain. Unable to cook, the family had to go to Lin’s mother’s house for meals.

Lin has a sunny disposition, and she held up quite well in the face of such serious damage to her house and the inconveniences brought by it. “We’re only partly damaged, and we still have our own beds to sleep in,” she told her friends who called after the typhoon to check on how she was doing. “Compared to families who have been forced to move into shelters because their homes were totally damaged, we’re pretty fortunate.”

She used to work in an administrative position at Taitung Mackay Memorial Hospital, but she quit her job to recover after she had surgery in the middle of June.

Lin’s five children range in age from 12 to 19. The oldest is studying physical therapy. He will graduate in a year and should then be able to help support their family. The youngest child is in the seventh grade, so Lin still has quite a bit of financial responsibility ahead of her.

After Nepartak, Tzu Chi recruited and organized villagers to clean up their own communities. Lin and her children all took part in the work. After they had cleaned up their own village, her children continued to work on the initiative, following Tzu Chi volunteers to clean up other places. They worked at places as far away as Taitung Physical Education Senior High School.

Lin was quite proud of her children. “Granted, they received money for their work from Tzu Chi,” Lin said. “But I’m thrilled to see them willing to help others.”

With self-help and help from other people, typhoon victims are working their way out of the destruction. They are regaining their footing and rebuilding their dreams.

Fall 2016