TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Torrential rains unleashed by a slow-moving typhoon battered Taiwan on Thursday, flooding low-lying areas and paralyzing life across broad swathes of the densely populated island of 23 million people.
Typhoon Saola, which killed 23 people in the Philippines earlier this week, has already been blamed by local media for seven deaths in Taiwan, though the official toll puts the death count at three.
Dozens of flights were canceled at Taipei's main international airport, where heavy winds destroyed two jetways, and rail transport throughout the island was disrupted.
By Thursday afternoon, Saola was centered on the northeastern county of Ilan, where rescuers were using rubber boats and amphibious vehicles to evacuate hundreds from flooded homes.
They were also seeking to locate at least six stranded residents, cut off from the rest of their farming community when flood waters overwhelmed a small bridge.
Packing sustained winds of 118 kph (74 mph) and gusts of 154 kph (98 mph) Saola was moving at only 15 kph (9 mph). Its slow speed and heavy rains raised the prospect of potentially devastating flooding in areas that have already absorbed more than 150 centimeters (58 inches) of rain since Tuesday.
All seven major reservoirs in Taiwan released large quantities of water in a flood prevention measure.
Saola was expected to pass north of the capital, Taipei, later Thursday before moving out to sea en route to the Chinese mainland, 160 kilometers (100 miles) to the west.
Late Wednesday, authorities ordered offices and businesses closed throughout northern Taiwan, including in Taipei. Normally busy streets in the capital were deserted during the morning rush hour Thursday, as cleanup crews labored to clear them of hundreds of trees and branches felled during the night by Saola's ferocious approach.
Television footage showed acre upon acre of flooded farmland in low-lying coastal areas, punctuated by scenes of raging rivers and roads blocked by mudslides in the island's mountainous center.
The Defense Ministry mobilized 48,000 soldiers to help mitigate the storm's impact, dispatching many to help hard-pressed farmers try to save threatened fruit and vegetable harvests.
The typhoon left at least 23 people dead in the Philippines and forced 180,000 to flee their homes in the capital, Manila, and 27 central and northern provinces. Coast guard and other disaster-response groups rescued 125 people from stricken sea vessels and flooded villages, according to Benito Ramos, who heads the government's National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.