The strongest earthquake ever measured in Japan — at 8.9 on the Richter Scale — struck off the coast of northeastern Honshu on Friday and was followed by a massive tsunami. Thousands of people are reported dead and tens of thousands are missing, as the number of people reported injured keeps rising. The earthquake destroyed buildings and bridges, and the tsunami drove as far as 10km inland, washing away houses, cars and roads in its path. Factories caught fire, transportation and communication lines were broken and at least one nuclear reactor exploded in Fukushima Prefecture, setting off a partial meltdown.
These disasters have caught the world’s attention, and Taiwan, one of Japan’s closest neighbors, must show its concern by providing practical relief and reconstruction assistance.
The disaster is also a warning for Taiwan, where earthquakes are frequent. The Japanese quake, with its epicenter off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, was 256 times stronger than the 921 earthquake that caused devastation in Taiwan’s Nantou County early on Sep. 21, 1999. Many people are now wondering whether our disaster prevention system and relief mechanisms could handle an earthquake of this magnitude. In this respect, we can learn a great deal from the way Japan has handled its latest disaster.
First, Japan’s excellent earthquake early warning system gave a one-minute warning via text messages and a public broadcasting system, and this allowed many people to get out of danger, cutting the number of casualties.
Second, the Japanese authorities frequently hold earthquake response exercises. The well-practiced government departments were quick to respond and ordinary people got themselves out of danger in an orderly manner instead of panicking, which would have only worsened the losses. Those who had no vehicles, food or shelter lined up for supplies and transportation or to be assigned a temporary place to stay. Shops and hotels made no attempt to profit from the disaster, instead giving away food and drinks or offering accommodation free of charge. The Japanese public are to be admired for their self--control and politeness.
Japan’s state broadcaster, NHK, issued non-stop tsunami and aftershock warnings, calmly offering advice as to how to get out of danger. Experts were on hand to help people get the fullest possible understanding of what was going on and how best to respond.
In contrast, many Taiwanese news outlets have focused primarily on scenes of devastation, along with commentary from the same old pundits who have opinions on anything from politics and economics, to crime and natural disasters. Evidently, news reporting in Taiwan has not matured beyond the stage of infotainment.
Taiwan, like Japan, sits on the earthquake belt that runs all around the Pacific Rim and it has an average of 18,500 earthquakes, felt and unfelt, each year. Taiwan would do well to observe and learn from the way the Japanese government and public have responded to their quake disaster. The tsunami and explosion at the Fukushima nuclear power plant have both given Taiwan cause for alarm. Our government immediately convened an interdepartmental disaster response conference to discuss how the Japanese quake might possibly affect Taiwan and what to do if the wind dumps radioactive dust on our territory. At the level of passive response, the government has acted quite quickly, but a plan for a disaster alarm and information system is still on the Cabinet’s drawing board.
With no single department dedicated to disaster prevention and response, our rescue and relief resources cannot be effectively integrated. Next time Taiwan is hit directly by a natural disaster, it may be more than we can handle.
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