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How Taiwan has learned from the past to reduce earthquake risks | Earthquake news

How Taiwan has learned from the past to reduce earthquake risks |  Earthquake news


HUALIN, Taiwan — When Wen Zhonghao felt the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck Taiwan's east coast a week ago, he was immediately concerned.

“The shaking was very violent and continued for a long time,” he said.

During his shift as a deputy captain at the Hualien County Fire Station, his instincts quickly surfaced.

“I immediately brought my team to start rescue efforts,” he said. “We had a feeling that this earthquake was likely to cause serious damage.”

But a week after the largest earthquake in 25 years, much of the island was unscathed.

Even in eastern Hualien County, located just kilometers from the epicenter, life has largely returned to normal. Restaurants are open for business, children are playing in the streets, and the city's night market is active again.

Although the province's population is more than 300,000, the death toll from the earthquake currently stands at 13 people, and more than 1,160 injured.

These numbers are in sharp contrast to the last time the island was hit by such a severe earthquake.

In 1999, more than 2,400 people were killed and more than 11,000 injured when an earthquake of similar magnitude, known as the Chi Chi earthquake, shook the island.

The authorities are carefully removing the buildings that collapsed in the earthquake. Building codes have been tightened in recent years to reduce the risk of such tremors [Jan Camenzind Broomby/Al Jazeera]

Wen, who was just 22 years old at the time, was working alongside other firefighters, pulling people from the rubble of more than 50,000 collapsed homes across Taiwan.

“They kept screaming: ‘Help me,’ ‘Rescue me.’ You could only do your best to listen to where the sound was coming from and try to get people out. We didn’t have anything else,” he recalls.


But 25 years later, Taiwan has learned from its past.

Assistant Professor Wang Yu from the Department of Geology at National Taiwan University explained that the Chi Chi earthquake was a calculation of the island's earthquake mitigation strategy.

“We have learned a lot of lessons, including improving building codes, understanding earthquake warning signs, developing and implementing earthquake early warning (EEW) systems and earthquake education,” Wang said.

A series of new sensors and 200 monitoring stations across the island now allow authorities to create “mic maps”, providing near real-time assessments of seismic movements.

Wu Yemin, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at National Taiwan University, explained that these maps are necessary to help rescue teams focus their efforts on the most affected areas.

The precise measurements generated are also used to quickly determine the epicenter of the earthquake, allowing the EEW system to trigger a mobile phone alert to people in at-risk areas.

Just seconds after the quake was detected on Wednesday morning, Taiwan's Central Weather Administration (CWA) issued a warning to people in affected counties, giving them precious seconds to find shelter.

It has since announced that it would re-evaluate its alert algorithms after complaints that some people in less affected provinces such as Taipei did not receive the alert in time.

Hualien City Mayor Wei Jiayan says residents learn from a young age how to respond to earthquakes [Jan Camenzind Broomby/Al Jazeera]

In addition to warnings, extensive public education campaigns and annual earthquake drills, organized on the anniversary of the Chi Chi earthquake, also served to prepare Taiwanese residents for the worst.

“Since we were young, our teachers and parents taught us that Hualien City is a place where earthquakes often occur,” Hualien City Mayor Wei Jiayan said.

This means that when the earthquake struck, most people knew exactly what to do. The mayor added: “You have to protect yourself, keep your head safe, and when the earthquake stops, it will probably run out quickly.”

Although a building collapse in downtown Hualien killed one person, changes in Taiwan's building codes also played a crucial role in limiting damage to homes around the epicenter and the incidence of collapses remained low.

Between 2009 and 2022, the number of buildings in Taiwan featuring seismic damping elements, used to reduce ground vibrations during earthquakes, has increased.

Taiwan's famous Taipei 101 Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world, has a large “damping ball” designed to prevent the building from swaying during earthquakes.

In the wake of the Chi Chi earthquake, the Taiwanese government also identified areas most at risk of earthquake damage due to their proximity to active fault lines, and required that new buildings be designed to meet higher seismic safety regulations in these areas.

“The buildings built after the Qiqi earthquake are much stronger than before,” Wu said.

Fortunately, the earthquake caused rockslides and landslides in the famous Taroko Gorge National Park [Jan Camenzind Broomby/Al Jazeera]

For firefighter Wen, rescue operations are also a different world than they were during the Chi Chi earthquake.

“We did not have a special search and rescue team,” Wen explained, recalling the rescue efforts during the 1999 earthquake. “We had to rely exclusively on the manpower of the firefighters at the scene.”

Wen now leads a dedicated team deploying technology including thermal imaging, seismic sensor life detection, life support, and large-scale demolition equipment.

Just like in Hualien, provinces and cities across Taiwan also have dedicated search and rescue teams whose members have studied advanced skills in earthquake rescue, he explained.

“Once we arrived on site, we immediately knew how to deploy resources and carry out rescue operations.”

But although Taiwan's ability to withstand the earthquake lies in its preparedness, good fortune also played a role.

The epicenter of the earthquake was in the east of the island, a sparsely populated area where buildings are usually low and less likely to collapse.

Wang explained that smaller earthquakes in previous years had already destroyed weak buildings that could have collapsed completely during last week's quake.

Moreover, the earthquake occurred before a major holiday in Taiwan. “If this had happened after one day, people would have gone back to their families, or to the national parks,” Wang said. “There could have been a lot of casualties.”

While a combination of good preparation and good luck has kept the death toll relatively low, one problem remains.

Wen Zhonghao says searching in Taroko Park's mountainous terrain is more challenging than the urban landscape [Jan Camenzind Broomby/Al Jazeera]

The quake's epicenter near Taiwan's rugged eastern coast triggered major landslides that hampered rescue operations for tourists still trapped in the mountainous Taroko Gorge National Park in Hualien.

“It's as if the entire Taroko Mountains collapsed, trapping a lot of people inside the mountain. This is completely different and more difficult than a normal urban search and rescue mission,” said firefighter Wen.

“After the main earthquake, we were dealing with almost constant aftershocks – and when we entered the valley we were still quite scared.”

Despite this, rescue efforts continue.

“In your heart, you only hope that you can find the people as soon as possible, that the dead can rest in peace, the injured can recover quickly, and those who are alive can become stronger,” Wen said.




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