By Ben Yeh
CHISHAN, TAIWAN - Rescuers struggled Friday to save thousands trapped in villages across southern and central Taiwan as the island's embattled leader warned the flood's death toll could jump to 500.
More than 50,000 troops fought against time, crossing raging rivers and fallen bridges to reach victims, many of whom have been without food and water since Typhoon Morakot struck nearly a week ago.
President Ma Ying-jeou - accused of bungling the government's response to the disaster - warned the island-wide death toll of 118 would likely increase more than fourfold.
'Taiwan's death toll could rise to more than 500,' he told a national security meeting, saying 380 people were feared buried by mudslides in Hsiaolin village.
The typhoon's estimated economic impact grew to 110 billion Taiwan dollars (S$4.9 billion), including destroyed homes, crops and infrastructure, Premier Liu Chao-shiuan told reporters on Friday.
The cabinet has promised a special budget to help cover the typhoon damage.
As anger mounted, Ma vowed the whole nation would mobilise to help the victims. 'The government will overcome all obstacles to accomplish the mission,' he said.
Hong Kong actor Andy Lau and Chinese action star Jet Li joined other celebrities in answering phones on two televised fundraisers for typhoon victims on Friday night that raised more than 432 million Taiwan dollars (S$18.8 million) in the first four hours.
The typhoon dumped more than three metres (120 inches) of rain, triggering floods and mudslides which tore through houses and buildings, ripped up roads and smashed bridges.
Ma's administration has been criticised for being too slow to recognise the magnitude of the crisis in which mudslides cut off hundreds of villages, leaving them only accessible by air.
Dozens of helicopters continued to criss-cross mountains and ravines, delivering food and water, and airlifting survivors.
Military helicopters airlifted 1,943 people to safety during 115 flights in the past week, the military said.
In Meilang village, Kaohsiung County, two desperate young men waved a large yellow banner which said 'Government please help the people in Meilang and Changshan' every time a helicopter hovered above them.
One of them, surnamed Hsieh, said he left his work to return to his home village to find 270 villagers who had been missing for a week.
'The mountain here is shaking, it is going to collapse,' he told AFP, asking why rescue teams had neglected their villages.
'Taiwan is cursed. This has never happened before.'
The island's southeastern Taitung County government estimated that nearly 3,700 people in its townships were still cut off Friday morning.
Meanwhile, the emergency operation centre in central Chiayi county said that it believed nearly 9,000 people remained stranded there.
And in Kaohsiung, the hardest-hit county where most of the rescue missions are concentrated, troops were evacuating 2,000 more people, county magistrate Yang Chiu-hsing told AFP.
Rescue workers said they had to risk their lives wading through rivers to deliver relief items such as biscuits, canned food and instant noodles. In Hsinfa village, a hot-spring resort where bodies were found buried by mudslides, volunteer rescuers had to snake through some 18 kilometres (10.5 miles) of roads ravaged by flash floods and three half-blocked tunnels.
But they said a toppled bridge was still preventing them from getting relief supplies to trapped victims.
'This is of course no easy task,' said Liang Tien-tsai, a former chief of Hsinfa.
'But we have to get the things done as quickly as possible, as there are still around 300 villagers isolated by mud and they badly need help.' Another villager there complained the government's rescue work was slow and insufficient.
'The military should have sent helicopters here,' Lin Chin-fa, 56.
Morakot was the worst-ever typhoon to strike Taiwan, the president said on Friday, saying the scale of the damage was more severe than a 1959 typhoon that killed 667 people and left around 1,000 missing.
The deadliest natural disaster in the island's history is a 7.6-magnitude quake that claimed around 2,400 lives in September 1999.