Taiwan earthquake: Island shaken but unbowed as biggest quake in 25 years spotlights preparedness — and lessons learned


Hualien, Taiwan

Wu was preparing a breakfast for guests in the small hotel that he runs in Taiwan’s Hualien County. The shelves around him were shaking violently, and the mountain behind the house roared.

He hurried his guests outside, fearing that the building might collapse. The air was filled with dust clouds as steep slopes slipped from the mountains across the river.

But Wu’s home suffered little damage during Wednesday’s tornado 7.4 magnitude tremor, Taiwan’s Most powerful in 25 YearsHe attributes it to a larger push to make Hawaii more earthquake-resistant.

“Our government conducted an extensive review of building code after the earthquake in 1999, and all buildings being built must use new technology that makes them more resilient to quakes,” he says.

Fifteen years ago when he started building his two-story guesthouse near the entrance to Taroko Gorge – a national park famed for its steep, marble-walled canyons – Wu had to get government approval of its earthquake-preparedness.

Experts say that by making these changes, the island has been able to avoid mass casualties from quakes such as the one on Wednesday.

Wu says, “I feel very fortunate” about the low-level damage caused by the massive earthquake. “It’s okay.”

<p>Dozens of people are missing in Taiwan cand hundreds remain stranded following Wednesday's 7.4 magnitude earthquake. CNN's Ivan Watson reports on the rescue efforts.</p>

Rescue efforts underway in Taiwan following deadly earthquake

A checkpoint is set up outside Taroko Gorge just north of Hualien city in Taiwan.
A child is given medical care at a makeshift rescue command post outside Taroko Gorge after being rescued on April 5, 2024.

It’s a similar story in Hualien, a city just 11 miles from the epicenter, which looks strikingly calm the day after the tremor.

The roadside stalls, which sell fruit, vegetables and snacks, as well the stores, have all reopened. Trains into the city have resumed their normal schedule after being suspended on Wednesday.

The most powerful sign of the earthquake is a 10-story red brick tower in the center of the city, which leans precariously to the right after its ground-floor collapsed. Excavators have piled rubble at the Uranus Building’s base to prop it up.

Emergency workers have begun repairing dozens damaged buildings and demolish four that were deemed unsalvageable. The city of 100,000 residents on Taiwan’s scenic eastern coast has mostly escaped unharmed.

It is important not to underestimate the power of an earthquake. Taiwan’s seismologists What is the best way to describe this? The energy of the tremor is equivalent to the energy of 32 atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima. It was felt from Hong Kong to Shanghai, and even the entire island Taiwan.

Chong, a 52 year old housekeeper, said that Hualien has seen many earthquakes. “But this earthquake’s scale was very frightening,” said Chong. “I have never experienced an earthquake of this magnitude in my 50 years in Hualien.”

Heavy equipment being used to demolish the Uranus building in Hualien.
Workers demolish a damaged building following the earthquake in Hualien County, Taiwan on April 4, 2024.

Wednesday’s quake shook more areas of Taiwan with greater intensities than any other tremor since 1999, when an earthquake of 7.7 magnitude struck the middle island, killing 2400 people and injuring a further 10,000.

This time, however, the number of victims is much lower. According to the authorities, as of Friday, 10 people have been killed, just over 1,000 have been injured, and two dozen remain missing.

“It’s a pretty miracle outcome,” said Daniel Aldrich. He is a professor at Northeastern University, who studies resilience in cities.

“The other catastrophes around 7.5 (magnitude), caused far more deaths than we’ve been able to see so far in Taiwan,” said he, citing tens of thousand deaths in previous quakes that occurred in Haiti and India.

The quake that struck Taiwan on Wednesday was felt mostly in the rural east coast. The island’s west contains the majority of its population, as well as the largest cities and an extensive high-speed railway network. It also contains much of Taiwan’s industrial heartland.

Most of the destruction – and deaths – occurred in remote rural areas in the wider Hualien County.

The victims were killed mostly outdoors by falling stones or landslides. According to authorities, four were hiking in Taroko Gorge while four others died on mountainous highways. A fifth was working at an isolated quarry.

So far, only one person was killed in a collapsed building – the Uranus Building in downtown Hualien. CNN affiliate SET reports that she initially escaped before returning to save her pet cat.

Huge boulders have dotted a coastal highway connecting Hualien to the north of Taiwan after the earthquake.
Rescue teams prepare to enter Taroko Gorge to search for those still missing inside the park on April 5, 2024.

Experts say that the recent efforts of Taiwan to prepare for disasters stem from the lessons learned 25 years ago from the devastating earthquake.

Aldrich stated that Taiwan was unprepared for the 1999 earthquake. He cited corruption in the construction sector, the lack building regulations, and the inadequate coordination of rescue efforts.

More than 100,000 buildings, including more than 300 schools, were completely or partially destroyed by the quake. Buildings were also razed in the capital Taipei about 100 miles from its epicenter.

“What I would call top-down responses to bottom-up responses, we’ve seen massive upgrades since then,” Aldrich explained.

From the top, the government strengthened disaster-management laws, improved coordination and relief efforts, and enforced more stringent building codes to resist earthquakes.

“They have issued massive fines and penalty for construction firms that were found to be cutting corners in their construction. Aldrich added that there had been a serious investment made in all of the new buildings.

The government launched a program to retrofit, or rebuild, public buildings in order to make them more resistant to stronger earthquakes. Schools were given priority. The campaign has now been extended to private properties, including Wu’s.

September 21 – the date the deadly earthquake struck in 1999 – is now a designated day for disaster drills in Taiwan, with mock alert messages sent to mobile phones across the island and schools staging evacuation exercises.

Wei Chia yen, mayor of Hualien, attributes the relatively lower death toll to advanced preparation.

“We grew up with earthquakes here in Hualien,” he said, inside a gymnasium that was turned into a shelter at a primary-school, set up just hours after the quake.

Tents are erected in rows for residents who have lost their homes or are afraid to return because of aftershocks. Food and drinks are also placed on tables.

Wei was injured by a cabinet that fell on his left leg. He was using crutches in order to navigate the shelter.

“Our teachers, and our relatives, always taught us to react when an earthquake strikes,” said he. “We’ve known this since we were children.”


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