Twenty years ago today, Taiwan suffered its second-deadliest earthquake, a magnitude 7.6 temblor centered near Nantou County’s Jiji Township (集集).
The following year, the government designated Sept. 21 as National Disaster Prevention Day to commemorate the 921 Earthquake. Yet, each year, as the anniversary rolls around, many people wonder if Taiwan is really better equipped to handle a disaster of a similar magnitude, or worse.
Over the past two decades, the central and local governments have worked to improve their emergency response systems and enforce stricter building codes for schools, offices, residential complexes and other facilities, after the 921 Earthquake highlighted the dangers of poor designs, cost-cutting, substandard materials, corruption and lax enforcement of standards and regulations.
The National Fire Agency’s training center in Nantou County’s Jhushan Township (竹山), the largest in Asia, was established to bolster the nation’s disaster response abilities.
The Central Weather Bureau’s Seismology Center has been building a system of what is eventually to be nine underwater seismic monitoring stations, and two years ago the bureau launched a public warning system that sends text alerts nationwide for earthquakes, tsunamis and heavy rains.
As deadly as the 921 Earthquake was, one saving grace was that it hit at 1:47am, as more than 120 schools were destroyed and more than 700 suffered damage. Who knows how high the casualty toll would have gone if schools were in session.
Yet, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake on Feb. 6, 2016, showed that not enough had been done to ensure that residential or mixed-used buildings can withstand earthquakes.
Investigations into the collapse of the Weiguan Jinlong complex in Tainan blamed it on the use of watered-down concrete in the construction.
A government study on soil liquefaction published in March 2016 found that Taipei and seven other cities or counties were highly vulnerable to structural collapse during earthquakes.
While that report prompted the Executive Yuan to launch a six-year improvement plan, seismic safety evaluations for privately owned buildings and facilities are still voluntarily organized and haphazardly conducted, instead of being mandatory, regardless of the age of the structure.
Once again, the nation was forced to watch as emergency crews struggled to rescue people from the Yun Men Tsui Ti complex that partially collapsed in a magnitude 6 earthquake that struck Hualien on Feb. 6 last year — a 12-floor complex that prosecutors said had been jerry-built by an unlicensed developer.
It has not always taken an earthquake to demonstrate the dangers of shoddy construction practices, as the August 1997 Lincoln Mansions disaster in then-Taipei County’s Sijhih (汐止) demonstrated.
Taiwan sits on the boundary between the Eurasian and the Philippine tectonic plates, and the collision of those plates means that earthquakes will forever be a fact of life in this nation.
However, the legacy of the 921 Earthquake is that so much more can be done to mitigate the loss of life and the damage caused by earthquakes and other natural disasters if governments and the public demand change, and are willing to bear the costs.
One other thing that is worth remembering about the 921 Earthquake — and the SARS epidemic four years later — is the response from across the Taiwan Strait. While Beijing issued platitudes about its concern for its “Taiwanese compatriots,” the reality was that China threw up every possible roadblock it could to prevent international aid and assistance from reaching Taiwan by demanding that any nation or organization that wanted to help had to first get its permission.
Taiwanese, on the contrary, have not let political disputes mandate their help and have proven more than willing to donate money and aid to those in need across the Taiwan Strait, as they did to Chinese victims of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province.
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