Taiwan earthquake: How the island's preparation saved it over two decades

Taiwan earthquake: How the island's preparation saved it over two decades
  • Written by Robert Wingfield Hayes
  • BBC News, Hualien

Video explanation,

Impact of a 7.4 magnitude earthquake in Taiwan

When disasters strike, especially when major earthquakes strike, the global media are attracted like flies to the most dramatic devastation. Concept. But they often portray a distorted picture of what happened.

You can see it here in Hualien City. Camera crews gather around a 10-story building tilted at a terrifying angle. Everything seems strange and scary. But this was only one of a few buildings that suffered structurally in a city of tens of thousands.

A hundred meters away from the police cordon, the streets of Hualien City look completely normal. Shops and cafes are open, and traffic is flowing. Drive through the city, and if you didn't know there was a major earthquake days ago, you wouldn't guess it.

The fact that this city escaped largely unscathed sparked immediate debate about how and why.

Just over a year ago, we saw earthquakes of almost the same magnitude hit Turkey and Syria, causing more than 50,000 deaths. Naturally, these countries had much fewer resources. But when a smaller, 6.7-magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2011, the city center was almost completely flattened.

Taiwan is also often located on fault lines, but has made significant progress in dealing with tremors. Many say the wake-up call was the Chi Chi earthquake that struck Taiwan in 1999, the worst in its history. It killed more than 2,400 people and destroyed tens of thousands of buildings.

I witnessed the effects of that disaster. In the central province of Nantou, several residential buildings were toppled. What was most striking was that many of them were completely new.

I remember a huge 20-story building that had collapsed from its foundation and was lying on its side, still almost completely intact.

The catastrophic damage has sparked a lot of anger and soul-searching about why so many new buildings fail. Experts said their design was fundamentally flawed. The core columns were not large enough, and the amount of steel in them was too small.

Their findings are not entirely surprising: when I lived in Taipei in the 1990s, there were frequent construction scandals.

Image source, Getty Images

Comment on the photo,

The loss of life in the 1999 earthquake sparked public outrage and demands for stronger action

A building I lived in when I was a student was condemned after it was found to have been built with concrete made from sea sand. Sea sand is much cheaper than river sand, but has a much higher salinity content. This corrodes the steel reinforcing bars, causing concrete cancer.

We were told that even a moderate level earthquake could have caused the building to collapse. Another investigation by the mayor of Taipei City revealed that old oil cans were placed inside the concrete columns of a new building.

The construction company was accused of using this trick to skimp on concrete and increase its profits.

A lot has changed since then. Following the Chi Chi earthquake, building codes were changed.

All new buildings are now required to meet a basic level of earthquake resistance, meaning they can withstand a certain level of shaking without major structural failure.

Video explanation,

BBC Asia correspondent Robert Wingfield Hayes reports on hundreds of landslides caused by the quake

The government is also constantly reviewing the required earthquake resistance levels for buildings, and identifying those that need to be upgraded. After 1999, they carried out a seismic survey – which typically involved adding a steel beam frame to the building's exterior, or adding reinforcements such as additional columns. This applies to infrastructure like bridges as well.

“Taiwan is frequently hit by serious earthquakes,” says Professor Yeh-Min Wu of National Taiwan University, who has worked in the country's response and prevention departments for decades. [that] Most of the poor quality buildings have already disappeared.”

Corrupt construction practices are being prosecuted. Following the Tainan earthquake that struck the island's southwest in 2016, when a 17-storey high-rise collapsed, killing dozens, five people involved in the building's construction were tried and jailed.

Of the 10 deaths reported so far this week, only one tragic loss of life occurred due to a building collapse — that 10-story building in Hualien I mentioned earlier. Others were associated with landslides and rockslides.

This points to another major reason why Taiwan will suffer limited damage this time.

Luck played a role. Wednesday's quake began offshore before striking south of the nearest major population centre, Hualien.

Seismic maps show how the epicenter was 30 kilometers (18 miles) south of the city, so Hualien and its environs were spared the worst of the tremors.

It occurred instead in the mountains to the south, west and north, where it unleashed massive rockslides, damaging roads and bridges, and tragically causing deaths.

Wednesday's event contrasts with what happened in Nantou in 1999, and Turkey and Syria last year, where earthquakes struck very close to densely populated areas.

However, the 7.4 magnitude earthquake was an incredibly powerful event, shaking not only the island but also the lands beyond.

Fortunately for Taiwan, it was well prepared this time.

Other pillars of the Taiwan earthquake response:

  • Early warning system: Sensors spread across the island are able to pick up the first tremors of an earthquake and provide mobile and television alerts to the public near the epicenter within a time period of 2 to 8 seconds. But the system still suffers from some glitches, with Taipei residents not receiving some phone alerts.
  • Public awareness: The Taiwanese are accustomed to earthquakes and know what to do, after drills were imposed in schools and workplaces after 1999.
  • Quick responders: The island's disaster response team actively tracks social media and can take advantage of surveillance cameras to assess the damage – and determine which locations to send aid to.

With additional reporting from Francis Mao in Singapore

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