Typhoon batters S. Korea, preparations minimize casualties

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The most powerful typhoon to hit South Korea in years killed at least six people, dumped a meter (3 feet) of rain, destroyed roads and felled power lines on Tuesday. The death toll could have been higher if not for proactive evacuations and school closures, officials said.

There was also greater public awareness about the storm and its risks. Typhoon Hinnamnor made impact just weeks after heavy rain around the capital, Seoul, caused flooding that killed at least 14 people.

Government officials put the nation on high alert for days as Hinnamnor approached, warning of potentially historic destruction and putting in motion life-saving measures.

After grazing the resort island of Jeju and hitting the mainland near the port city of Busan, Hinnamnor weakened as it blew into waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

South Korea’s weather agency said Hinnamnor was over the open sea 400 kilometers (248 miles) northwest of the northern Japanese city of Sapporo as of 9 p.m. and had weakened to a tropical storm.

However, the damage was still severe in the southern city of Pohang, where five people were found dead and at least five others were missing after the storm submerged roads and buildings, triggered landslides and flooded a shopping mall.

Cars with smashed windows and trunks open lay scattered on roads like garbage. An entire two-story pool villa was uprooted from the ground and swept away by flash floods. Troops were deployed to assist with rescue and restoration efforts, moving in armored vehicles through streets turned into chocolate-colored rivers.

Firefighters navigated flooded neighborhoods in rubber boats, rescuing people and their pets. Merchants scrambled to salvage furniture and other belongings at the famous Guryongpo outdoor market, where workers deployed excavators to clear huge piles of debris.

The rain and flooding eroded the foundations of bridges and motorways, which were often broken in chunks or blocked by fallen trees and electricity poles. Factory buildings were tilted, while a shipping container blew away and landed above cars in a parking lot.

“I woke up at 5 a.m. at because of the explosive rain, and I got really concerned because the water rose right up to my doorway,” Kim Seong-chang, a Pohang resident, said in an interview with JTBC. “The water was still thigh-high at 7 a.m. and those who parked their cars in the streets were in panic because their vehicles were submerged. … Other residents were bucketing out water from their homes.”

The storm dumped more than 105 centimeters (41 inches) of rain in central Jeju since Sunday, where winds peaked at 155 kph (96 mph). Southern and eastern mainland regions also had damage — knocked-off signboards and roofing, toppled trees and traffic signs, and destroyed roads.

In Pohang, a woman in her 70s died after being swept away in flash floods, while four others were found dead in a submerged basement parking lot, where the search was continuing for five people.

Wading in the parking lot’s neck-high waters with ropes tied to their bodies, emergency workers on Tuesday night managed to pull out two people who had been trapped. President Yoon Suk Yeol issued a congratulatory message after the first survivor’s rescue, calling it a “miracle.”

In the neighboring city of Gyeongju, a woman in her 80s died after her home was buried in a landslide. In Ulsan, another southern city, a 25-year-old man was unaccounted for after falling into a rain-swollen stream, according to the Ministry of the Interior and Safety.

Also in Pohang, firefighters extinguished flames that damaged at least three facilities at a major steel plant operated by POSCO. A presidential official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in a background briefing, said officials were investigating the cause of the fires.

Local fire officials said the flames destroyed a building housing electricity equipment and damaged a separate office building and a coking factory before being put out.

The Safety Ministry said about 3,700 of 4,700 people who had been forced to evacuate returned home Tuesday afternoon. Thousands of homes, buildings and factories were flooded or destroyed, and hundreds of roads, bridges and facilities were damaged.

More than 600 schools were closed or converted to online classes. Workers had managed to restore electricity to most of the 89,203 households that had lost power.

In North Korea, state media reported “all-out efforts” to minimize damage from flooding and landslides. The state Korean Central News Agency reported that leader Kim Jong Un had issued “detailed tasks” at government meetings to improve the country’s disaster response capacity but didn’t elaborate on the plans.

North Korea sustained serious damage from heavy rains and floods in 2020 that destroyed buildings, roads and crops, hurting the country’s already-crippled economy.

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