[Viewpoint] Adrift in the storm

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[Viewpoint] Adrift in the storm

I was standing at the edge of the storm, and not through any fault of my own. A breakfast meeting took me to a scene where I had a brush with death. I had checked the morning paper before I left home, and it said that Typhoon Kompasu would arrive around midday. I mistook the morning nimbus stampede as a kind of advance party.

But the clouds turned malignant, issuing awesome winds that transformed signboards and totally unidentifiable articles into missiles whistling through the air. Trees toppled and from somewhere came ear-piercing sounds. Early birds on their way to school scattered to take refuge in buildings. On Thursday morning, 2 million citizens in the capital experienced a roaring storm such as they have not seen in over a decade.

My car crawled until I finally found shelter to pull into. I turned on the radio. The news said the seventh typhoon of the year had arrived at Ganghwa Island on the west coast, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Seoul, at a speed of 45 kilometers per hour (28 miles per hour) as of 6.34 a.m. But no typhoon warning or safety measures followed. Sohn Suk-hee, host of the popular early morning radio news program “Focus,” kept audience up to date with the path of the unexpected typhoon.

His reporters warned of perilous streets to avoid as toppled trees, telephone poles, broken roof tiles and windows turned rush hour deadly. He also warned that most of the subway lines were out of service and suggested other ways to get to work. He called an official at the Korea Meteorological Administration, who lamely said that Kompasu arrived earlier than expected because sea temperature differences had accelerated its speed.

At the time, Kompasu was done with its destruction of the coastal regions of South Chungcheong and was having a field day with an unguarded Seoul. At 8:00 a.m., the government announced that school hours were pushed back for two hours, but many people had already left home.

I remember in Boston one summer 25 years when a hurricane with winds of 50 kilometers an hour descended on the city. Authorities immediately held an emergency meeting to announce school closures for the day. Universities also closed. Citizens were advised to stock up on food and candles in case of a crisis and to tape their windows. They were asked to stay indoors until the unwelcome guest departed. Some made the most of the unexpectedly cozy time with families and friends, holding beer parties and playing games. But the wind veered off toward another city 100 kilometers away and lost steam after hitting a nearby mountain. Bostonites laughed at the much-ado-over-nothing. But thanks to the precautions, no human or material damages were reported.

Korea’s meteorologists had warned that Kompasu would hit the heart of the peninsula around midday Thursday. They issued an alert around 6.00 a.m., but by that time, Kompasu had already taken its toll on the west coast. The disaster and safety control headquarters, under the auspices of the Korea Meteorological Administration, merely issued a typhoon alert, and fell short of describing safety precautions or sending out text messages.

Citizens relied on one another through online social networking systems to make up for the lack of government help. A National Emergency Management Agency was established in 2004 to systematize disaster control. But as it completely depends on information from the meteorological office, it proved incompetent in dealing with a capricious typhoon. For the average citizen, it would have been foolish to rely on the National Disaster Information Center Web site for information.

I checked its home page the following day. The news bulletin at 5:00 a.m. said Kompasu was 110 kilometers off Gunsan and expected to arrive at Ganghwa at 8:00 a.m. (By this time the typhoon had raised turmoil at Taean beaches.) At 6:00 a.m. it said the typhoon was 95 kilometers northeast of Seoul, expected to arrive at Ganghwa at 8:00 a.m. (By this time, Kompasu was slamming Seoul). At 8:00 a.m., the bulletin was unchanged. With subway lines dead, citizens waited long hours to cram themselves into buses to get to work. People had to cope with a monstrous typhoon with no help from disaster control authorities.

The Korean Peninsula has a long history with summer typhoons and tropical storms. When a gigantic typhoon swept up the coastal region in Chungcheong in 1794, taking 116 lives, King Jeongjo grieved over the deaths and ordered the punishment of the magistrate of Chungcheong who failed to report the damage.

With weather satellites in space, whom should we punish for the five deaths, power outages in over 1.6 million households, and massive damage to farms and buildings?

We Koreans have to be vigilant and self-reliant. Disaster control authorities fumbled despite an army of specialists and state-of-the-art equipment, and they may disappoint again.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun
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