TAIPEI, Taiwan – The first shipments of foreign aid arrived Sunday as Taiwan struggled to reach more than 1,000 people still stranded a week after its deadliest typhoon in half a century.
As plastic sheeting for makeshift housing arrived from the U.S. and water purification tablets came from Australia, taxi drivers in the capital, Taipei, pitched in, driving rice and instant noodles to the island's hard-hit rural south.
President Ma Ying-jeou, who says the death toll from Morakot is likely to exceed 500, offered another apology for his government's response to the disaster after families said more lives could have been saved.
"Sorry we were late," he told people in Pingtung County. "As the president, I will take full responsibility in getting the remaining work done well."
The head of Taiwan's relief operation, Mao Chi-kuo, denied mounting criticism that authorities had failed to evacuate villagers soon enough, blaming the record rainfall instead.
"We received in three days the amount of rainfall that would normally accumulate over one year," he told reporters.
Morakot dumped more than 80 inches (two meters) of rain in the rural south. The storm was the island's deadliest weather disaster since 1959, when more than 600 perished in a typhoon.
Mao said 3,000 villagers had been airlifted over the weekend, leaving about 1,000 still stranded in the ruins of flooded and mudslide-hit villages. All together, 35,000 villagers have been rescued from 44 hard-hit villages in the south, he said.
"We understand that people wanted us to do better and do it faster," he said.
The rescue operation has relied mainly on helicopters because bridges collapsed and roads were washed away.
Resettlement of an estimated 7,000 people whose homes were destroyed could speed up after a batch of prefabricated houses arrives from Britain on Sunday, with more coming from China, the country's relief center said.
Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said helicopters from the U.S. that can carry cranes and backhoes were expected to arrive soon to help in rescues and in the rebuilding of roads.
More than 59 countries have offered aid, it said.
China's official Xinhua News Agency said action movie star Jet Li's One Foundation Project had allocated 300,000 yuan ($44,000) to Taiwan for typhoon relief.
At the Cishan landing zone in the south, a main drop-off point for those rescued, hundreds have waited anxiously for days hoping to find relatives.
Among the survivors was 67-year-old Huang Jih, who walked hours to safety across the rugged terrain, carrying his mother on his back. Now he was worried about how he could support his family of seven.
"I have lost all my things," his 102-year-old mother Tseng Jih told ETTV, crying on her makeshift bed. "What am I going to wear when I die?"