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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Why Taiwan was so prepared for a powerful earthquake



Search and rescue teams remove a body from the damaged Uranus Building following a magnitude-7.4 earthquake in Hualien, Taiwan, on Wednesday, April 3, 2024. The quake killed nine and injured more than 1,000 others, stretching an expert quake response system that has served as a model in other places. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

By Chris Buckley, Meaghan Tobin and Siyi Zhao


When the largest earthquake in Taiwan in a half-century struck off its east coast, the buildings in the closest city, Hualien, swayed and rocked. As more than 300 aftershocks rocked the island over the next 24 hours to Thursday morning, the buildings shook again and again.


But for the most part, they stood.


Even the two buildings that suffered the most damage remained largely intact, allowing residents to climb to safety out the windows of upper stories. One of them, the rounded, red brick Uranus Building, which leaned precariously after its first floors collapsed, was mostly drawing curious onlookers.


The building is a reminder of how much Taiwan has prepared for disasters like the magnitude 7.4 earthquake that jolted the island Wednesday. Perhaps because of improvements in building codes, greater public awareness and highly trained search-and-rescue operations — and, likely, a dose of good luck — the casualty figures were relatively low. By Thursday, 10 people had died and more than 1,000 others were injured. Several dozen were missing.


“Similar level earthquakes in other societies have killed far more people,” said Daniel Aldrich, a director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University. Of Taiwan, he added: “And most of these deaths, it seems, have come from rock slides and boulders, rather than building collapses.”


Across the island, rail traffic had resumed by Thursday, including trains to Hualien. Workers who had been stuck in a rock quarry were lifted out by helicopter. Roads were slowly being repaired. Hundreds of people were stranded at a hotel near a national park because of a blocked road, but they were visited by rescuers and medics.


On Thursday in Hualien city, the area around the Uranus Building was sealed off, while construction workers tried to prevent the leaning structure from toppling completely. First they placed three-legged concrete blocks that resembled giant Lego pieces in front of the building, and then they piled dirt and rocks on top of those blocks with excavators.


“We came to see for ourselves how serious it was, why it has tilted,” said Chang Mei-chu, 66, a retiree who rode a scooter with her husband Lai Yung-chi, 72, to the building on Thursday. Lai said he was a retired builder who used to install power and water pipes in buildings, and so he knew about building standards. The couple’s apartment, near Hualien’s train station, had not been badly damaged, he said.


“I wasn’t worried about our building, because I know they paid attention to earthquake resistance when building it. I watched them pour the cement to make sure,” Lai said. “There have been improvements. After each earthquake, they raise the standards some more.”


Requirements for earthquake resistance have been built into Taiwan’s building codes since 1974. In the decades since, the writers of Taiwan’s building code also applied lessons learned from other major earthquakes around the world, including in Mexico and Los Angeles, to strengthen Taiwan’s code.


After more than 2,400 people were killed and at least 10,000 others injured during the Chi-Chi quake of 1999, thousands of buildings built before the quake were reviewed and reinforced. After another strong quake in 2018 in Hualien, the government ordered a new round of building inspections. Since then, multiple updates to the building code have been released.


“We have retrofitted more than 10,000 school buildings in the last 20 years,” said Chung-Che Chou, the director general of the National Center for Research on Earthquake Engineering in Taipei.


The government had also helped reinforce private apartment buildings over the past six years by adding new steel braces and increasing column and beam sizes, Chou said. Not far from the buildings that partially collapsed in Hualien, some of the older buildings that had been retrofitted in this way survived Wednesday’s quake, he said.


The result of all this is that even Taiwan’s tallest skyscrapers can withstand regular seismic jolts. The capital city’s most iconic building, Taipei 101, once the tallest building in the world, was engineered to stand through typhoon winds and frequent quakes. Still, some experts say that more needs to be done to either strengthen or demolish structures that don’t meet standards, and such calls have grown louder in the wake of the latest earthquake.


Taiwan has another major reason to protect its infrastructure: It is home to the majority of production for the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the world’s largest maker of advanced computer chips. The supply chain for electronics from smartphones to cars to fighter jets rests on the output of TSMC’s factories, which make these chips in facilities that cost billions of dollars to build.


The 1999 quake also prompted TSMC to take extra steps to insulate its factories from earthquake damage. The company made major structural adjustments and adopted new technologies like early warning systems. When another large quake struck the southern city of Kaohsiung in February 2016, TSMC’s two nearby factories survived without structural damage.


Taiwan has made strides in its response to disasters, experts say. In the first 24 hours after the quake, rescuers freed hundreds of people who were trapped in cars in between rockfalls on the highway and stranded on mountain ledges in rock quarries.


“After years of hard work on capacity building, the overall performance of the island has improved significantly,” said Bruce Wong, an emergency management consultant in Hong Kong. Taiwan’s rescue teams have come to specialize in complex efforts, he said, and it has also been able to tap the skills of trained volunteers.


Taiwan’s resilience also stems from a strong civil society that is involved in public preparedness for disasters.


Ou Chi-hu, a member of a group of Taiwanese military veterans, was helping distribute water and other supplies at a school that was serving as a shelter for displaced residents in Hualien. He said that people had learned from the 1999 earthquake how to be more prepared.


“They know to shelter in a corner of the room or somewhere else safer,” he said. Many residents also keep a bag of essentials next to their beds, and own fire extinguishers, he added.


Around him, a dozen or so other charities and groups were offering residents food, money, counseling and child care. The Tzu Chi Foundation, a large Taiwanese Buddhist charity, provided tents for families to use inside the school hall so they could have more privacy. Huang Yu-chi, a disaster relief manager with the foundation, said nonprofits had learned from earlier disasters.


“Now we’re more systematic and have a better idea of disaster prevention,” Huang said.

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