Towards a Resilient Homeland：Meizhou’s Volunteer Disaster Response Team
Lynn Su /photo byLin Min-hsuan
Yilan's Meizhou Community offers a tangible, relatable example of “hospitable Taiwan.” (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
We all know how superhero movies work: Superman, Spider-Man, Thor and the rest use their superpowers to fly through the air or bore through the earth to rescue ordinary mortals.
But superheroes don’t exist. In the real world, the day-to-day efforts of regular joes—utility maintenance workers, trash collectors, high-rise window cleaners, and others—are what keep the “plot” moving. Their diligent execution of their duties keeps the world running.
Ordinary people utilizing everyday talents and playing everyday roles can achieve great things. The elders of Yilan’s Meizhou Community are a case in point.
It’s a clear and still day in Yilan, and the scene in the Meizhou Community is bucolic. Water ripples in rice paddies crisscrossed by berms and canals. A creek flows under a small bridge. Women squat at the creek side washing clothes.
Non-locals would probably never guess that this community lies just downstream of the confluence of the Dajiao and Xiaojiao creeks. Together they form the Yilan River, which flows past Meizhou. Unfortunately, the community itself sits on low-lying ground, which means frequent flooding for residents during the rainy season.
Zhan Helun has lived in the Meizhou Community for more than 20 years and recalls the terror of the river bursting its banks and flooding the paddies. “I was three during that flood, and my brother had just been born. Though we still lived in Yilan City, my father was a fireman, and came here to help the victims of the flooding.”
Our visit takes place in the winter, when the water levels are low. Vegetation covers the stones poking up from the riverbed and the tops of the dykes. Even so, the locals’ conversation revolves around how deeply their lives have been affected by their nearly constant battle against the water.
Stalwart community elders step up to give help when emergency situations arise in their neighborhood.
A resilient city arises
Yilan City’s unfavorable terrain has trained its people to endure hardship, but climate change has made typhoons worse. Residents note further that the city’s classic misty rains have largely been replaced by sudden, violent summer storms. Even with rapid technological progress and rising awareness of weather risks, we need more than early warning systems to manage natural disasters, emergency responses, and post-disaster recovery.
In the 1970s, biologists observed that a small number of animal species recovered quickly from natural disasters such as forest fires. They were termed highly “resilient” for their ability to rapidly adapt to a new equilibrium.
The 1980s saw the idea of “resiliency” spread into social sciences like geography and anthropology as researchers investigated how humans could better adapt to and recover from the effects of natural disasters. They found that we can more successfully cope with issues such as climate change, aging societies, and pollution if we face them head-on rather than attempting to avoid them, and can accelerate the process of recovery by learning from our failures, making adjustments, and responding flexibly.
While Zhan was showing us around Meizhou, we happened upon the scene of a minor accident involving a motorcycle and a car. When Zhan, who is the deputy commander of the community’s volunteer disaster response team, spotted the accident, he immediately pulled his car over and got out to help.
Besides us, the first people on the scene weren’t police or emergency medical technicians, but locals from the community’s disaster response team. Older men wearing safety vests and helmets arrived and began confidently directing traffic around the accident with their batons.
Situations like this demonstrate the Meizhou disaster response team’s training and rapport, and illustrate the value of resiliency for cities and communities.
When natural disaster strikes, Meizhou’s volunteer response team pulls together to protect the community. (courtesy of the Meizhou disaster response team)
This Meizhou disaster response map identifies temporary shelters at a local elementary school, temple and community center. (courtesy of the Meizhou disaster response team)
The memories of Meizhou residents often revolve around major floods. Zhan recalls a severe flood from around 1960. Wu Wenlong, the head of the community’s disaster response team, was a child at the time, but still vividly remembers carrying sandbags with the adults to try to hold back the rising water.
“In the old days, it could flood as high as the ceiling!” says Wu, pointing to a higher-than-normal first-story ceiling.
“Born to suffering,” locals have a heightened awareness of risk. In 2010, when the Water Resources Agency realized that public agencies couldn’t go it alone on disaster relief, and there was a need for local volunteer disaster response teams, it launched a community-based flood management program. Wu, who was Meizhou’s borough chief at the time, informed residents about the program and began actively seeking the community’s participation.
Harold Yih-chi Tan, an emeritus professor in the Department of Bioenvironmental Systems Engineering at National Taiwan University who advises Meizhou, explains that one of the keys to the success of the community’s disaster response team has been its organization.
The team acts as the community’s neighborhood watch in ordinary times, and then transforms into a response team when disaster strikes. Its 40-some members are organized into five groups, responsible for patrol and early warning, equipment preparation, evacuation and shelter, medical assistance, and preparedness and relief. They follow their commander’s orders and do their utmost to protect their community.
When a typhoon is on the way, the team gives an alert. If the Yilan City Office announces the establishment of a disaster response center, the team then immediately sets up its own command center.
Then, the equipment preparation group prepares vests, raingear, chainsaws, stretchers and other necessary items. The medical assistance group delivers necessities such as food, water and medicines to seniors who live alone and residents with chronic illnesses. The patrol and early warning group patrols every hour or two regardless of the bad weather to check for problems in flood-prone areas. The preparedness and relief group handles urgent repairs. And, if the situation calls for it, the evacuation and shelter group evacuates residents into a temporary shelter at the borough’s activity center.
Designated team members are charged with managing and maintaining a full inventory of disaster-response necessities.
Team members receive training that enables them to analyze typhoon movements and quickly respond to a changing situation.
Resilient, not stubborn
When Taiwanese think of disaster preparedness, they usually think of infrastructure. But training people and getting the community involved are even more important.
Tan explains that there are many ways to prevent and prepare for disasters. Hardware-based approaches are very expensive, whereas organizing and training volunteers is “economical and effective.”
In an article on urban resiliency, Lu Peiwen, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at National Changhua University of Education, writes: “Take the issue of urban flooding as an example. Resiliency can be promoted through public works such as flood detention parks and drainage facilities, but it is very difficult to cultivate a city’s resiliency if residents are collectively unaware of water-related issues and dangers, and have not prepared their local environment.”
The real challenge for disaster preparedness isn’t cost, it is changing how people think.
Wu Wenlong braves wind and rain to check the rainfall intensity of a typhoon. (courtesy of the Meizhou disaster response team)
Taking it south
Having undergone comprehensive training, Meizhou earned three consecutive years of outstanding ratings in the Water Resource Agency’s evaluation of community-based flood management. Wu went on to end the community’s participation in the evaluation after realizing that it had already honed its skills to a sharp edge, and that its continued participation would be a waste of resources, and would deprive other groups of the opportunity to take part.
Meizhou has nonetheless maintained its exchanges with other communities, its team serving as “seeds” spreading ideas and practices across Taiwan and its outlying islands, and even giving classes at schools to students from elementary to university age.
More recently, in 2018, Alan Hao Yang, a professor in the Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies at National Chengchi University, and others helped Meizhou win a grant from the Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund of the US State Department for the community’s Empowering Disaster Resilient Communities in Asia project.
Yang, who is also the executive director of the Taiwan Asia Exchange Foundation, notes that Taiwan and the nations of Southeast Asia are objectively similar in terms of factors such as geography and climate, and that Meizhou’s experience in coping with floods, earthquakes, and typhoons is something that can be shared as an aspect of national strategy.
Moreover, the idea of fostering exchanges and connections between communities is in keeping with the core “people-centered” spirit of the Tsai administration’s New Southbound Policy. This approach can break through official constraints and forge connections directly with Southeast-Asian communities.
“Trade and investment give you big numbers, but communities possess a kind of soft power. People in other places can learn from these communities and experience Taiwan’s warmth and friendliness for themselves,” says Yang.
In Asia, where interpersonal networks matter a great deal, the Meizhou Community offers a tangible, relatable example of “hospitable Taiwan.”
Meizhou is sharing its disaster preparedness experience with Southeast-Asian scholars.
Meizhou’s disaster preparedness experience helped it win a grant from the US State Department’s Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund. (courtesy of Alan Hao Yang)
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama