There is nothing left in Shiao Lin. Nothing except the knots of grieving relatives mourning their dead, the red-clad rescue workers searching the ground for human remains and the tons of mud and rubble where once the village lay.
Shiao Lin was obliterated last weekend when rains spawned by Typhoon Morakot loosened the foundations of two nearby mountains and sent their facades tumbling down onto its 200 or so homes.
Early Saturday morning friends and relatives of the victims gathered at the site of the village, burning incense, carrying photos of their loved ones and weeping inconsolably under a gray and ominous sky.
Walking unsteadily near the remains of the Tai Tz Temple - one of only two building still standing - Liu Jin-fung shook his head repeatedly. He said the storm had changed his life beyond all recognition.
"My parents, my brothers, my uncles, altogether 40 of my family members were killed," he said. "How can I plan for the future? Everything is gone from my world."
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou said Friday that 380 of the southern village's approximately 600 residents died in the deluge. He put the overall Morakot death toll at about 500, making it the island's deadliest weather disaster since 1959 when more than 600 perished, also in a typhoon.
On Saturday, the president offered his first apology following mounting criticism that the government was too slow to provide rescue and relief services after the disaster.
"We could have responded faster and better, but we didn't," he said. "We are sorry about that."
Morakot dumped more than 80 inches of rain on Taiwan and stranded thousands in villages in the mountainous south. A total of 21,199 villagers have been ferried to safety and rescuers were working to save another 4,224 people.
The storm destroyed the homes of 7,000 people and caused agricultural and property damage in excess of 50 billion New Taiwan dollars ($1.5 billion), according to government estimates.
Standing close to a relative in Shiao Lin, 12-year-old Chiu Yao-wen gazed longingly at a color photograph of Pan Hsia-yen, her eight-year-old niece, and buried her head in her hands.
"She's gone," Chiu said. "Her and her whole family. They're all gone now."
In the valley below, relatives and friends of the dead made their way unsteadily through the mud and rubble that consumed the village.
Clutching each other for support, they moved back and forth across the thousands of tiny rocks and hundreds of shattered tree trunks that swept down from the mountains when they collapsed six days earlier.
Shiao Lin is located in a narrow valley formed by the Nan Tz Hsien River, which burst its banks when torrential rains began falling before last weekend.
Underfoot the soil is still sponge-like and mushy, and the sound from the dozens of rain-fed streams flowing over the ground - gently now, finally gently - is strangely soft.
Until the storm hit, Shiao Lin was a close-knit agricultural community, cobbling together an uncertain living growing ginger, rice, peaches, and most recently coffee, said anthropologist Chien Wen-ming, who said he had been conducting research in the area for more than 10 years.
Chien, who arrived early Saturday to pay homage to the victims, said for some villagers life had already been a struggle.
"Living here was not easy," he said. "Many people left because the area of cultivatable land was too small. It was not at all easy to get by."
Just behind him Shiao Lin's two remaining structures stood broken and fractured amid a pair of tall palm trees - a dun colored house that survived the disaster because it was located on relatively high ground, and the adjacent Tai Dz Taoist temple, its walls falling apart.
On either side of the valley, the mountains that buried the village were visible through a thin mist, the northern peak's once verdant face stripped clean away, and 800 feet of its original mass lying below on the ground.
Fourty-nine-year-old Liu Suan-dz, the owner of the house, said he was in Taipei when the disaster struck and was now returning to the village for the first time.
"It's finished here, all of it," Lui said, inspecting the mud-encased floors, the shards of wood that were once his furniture, and the storm's high watermark, clearly visible near the ceiling. "There's nothing left to come back to."
© 2009 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.