Typhoon Maemi hit the southeastern coast Friday night with gale winds blowing at a record 135 miles per hour before weakening into a tropical storm Saturday. More than 24,900 people fled their homes to seek shelter in schools and public facilities, said the National Disaster Prevention and Countermeasures Headquarters, or NDPCH.
Vast tracts of farmlands, cities and rivers were flooded as Maemi, Korean for the insect cicada, dumped rainfall of up to 17.8 inches.
Maemi is "by far the most powerful typhoon since we began compiling weather records in 1904," said Yoon Seok-hwan, an official at the Korea Meteorological Administration. He said Maemi's wind speed was the fastest ever, topping the 129.6 mph record set by Typhoon Prapiroon in 2000.
Maemi triggered landslides in several places, one of which derailed an express train from Seoul to the southern city of Andong on Saturday, injuring 28 people.
The NDPCH said at least 62 people drowned or died because of landslides, electrocution and other causes. It said 25 more were missing and feared dead.
In Busan, the nation's second-largest city and its main port, 11 container-lifting cranes, each weighing as much as 900 tons, were toppled, their green and red steel limbs twisted beyond recognition. Steel containers as long as 20 feet were scattered around the port.
At a beach, a cruise ship-turned-floating hotel that had been evacuated earlier flipped over and lay on its side in shallow water. At least 18 other empty fishing boats capsized. Elsewhere, a construction crane collapsed on a fire engine, injuring five firefighters.
Highway road signs were uprooted and fell on vehicles. The few cars that ventured on the roads were buffeted by strong winds as they moved cautiously with headlights and hazard lights on. Thousands of people who had been visiting their hometowns on the southern islands for the annual thanksgiving Chuseok holiday since Wednesday were stranded as high swells kept ferries from operating.
Navy divers searched flooded areas for victims, and soldiers used buckets to scoop out water from underground parking lots. Military helicopters were used to rescue stranded people and transport emergency supplies.
Five of the nation's 18 nuclear power plants were shut after their main current transformers or power lines were damaged by the typhoon, the NDPCH said. It said no radiation leakage was reported.
About 20 major factories in Ulsan and Onsan cities on the southeast coast, including two major oil refineries, were forced to temporarily halt operations, the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy said. Prime Minister Goh Kun convened a meeting of ministers to plan for repairing the damage.
The NDPCH said the typhoon initially caused blackouts in 1.4 million households, but power was restored to 1 million homes. It said 12,626 acres of farmland and many roads, including some highways, were flooded.
The power outage partially paralyzed fixed-line and cellular phone networks, with electricity cut off or disrupted at the country's three mobile phone operators and the dominant telephone company, KT.
South Korea is usually hit by a couple of typhoons each summer and early fall. In September last year, Typhoon Rusa left at least 119 dead. The most devastating typhoon ever to hit South Korea was Sara, which killed 849 people in 1959.
Sara and Maemi took roughly the same route across South Korea, but Sara took a heavier toll because the country was ill-prepared for the disaster at that time.