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Huge Taiwan quake caused few deaths thanks to preparedness — and luck

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Motorcyclists waited calmly on a bridge as it rocked violently; nurses looking after a group of infants quickly pushed their cribs together to protect them from falling objects; a trio of hikers on top of Taiwan’s tallest mountain sat still until the tremor was over; rescue workers pulled residents out of partially collapsed and dangerously listing buildings.

When a 7.4-magnitude earthquake struck off the east coast of Taiwan on Wednesday morning, it was scenes of composure such as these, rather than mass panic, that stood out across the island of 23 million people.

It was the strongest earthquake to hit Taiwan in 25 years, triggering hundreds of aftershocks and landslides. Yet as of Thursday, only 10 people in the worst-hit region of Hualien County, home to more than 300,000, had died.

That’s because Taiwan, which sits in the world’s most seismically active zone, has had years of practice and preparation for exactly this kind of scenario.

Experts credit stricter building codes, extensive evacuation and disaster drills that begin in primary school, a honed disaster response strategy — and a fair amount of luck — for the low death toll Wednesday’s quake.

“Although it seems like a long time, in the past 25 years Taiwan has actually made great progress,” said Hsin-yu Shan, associate professor of civil engineering at National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University.

On Thursday, rescue teams were working to free more than 700 people who remained trapped in a national park in Hualien, the epicenter of the quake. Forecasts of rain raised concerns about more landslides.

More than 1,000 people were injured in Wednesday’s quake, mostly by falling rocks, according to Taiwan’s fire department.

Rescue efforts have been complicated by a large number of aftershocks — at least 324 — in Hualien County, a scenic coastal region popular with tourists and hikers, where the damage has been the heaviest. Taiwan officials said aftershocks of magnitudes of 6.5 to 7.0 were possible over the next three days.

A 7.4-magnitude earthquake rocked Taiwan’s eastern coast April 3, injuring hundreds of people, collapsing buildings and causing landslides. (Video: Naomi Schanen, Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

Residents in Hualien said rescue workers moved quickly to evacuate them from damaged buildings.

The nine-story Uranus Building, an apartment complex, was among several buildings that partially collapsed and were left tilting dangerously as emergency workers raced to find those inside.

Yu Yang, a 27-year-old delivery worker who lives in the building, found herself pinned between her closet and table as the building suddenly tilted following a strong aftershock.

“I felt helpless and couldn’t move at all,” she said. Within about three hours, two rescue workers climbed into her apartment and used their own safety rope to lower her to the ground.

“The government’s response has been very quick, and they’ve worked very hard. It was really dangerous, but the search and rescue workers were willing to climb in,” she said.

Of the 75 people in the building, 74 were accounted for and safe. One woman who died is suspected of having gone back into the building for her cat and was pinned down by falling debris.

Drone footage taken April 4 shows workers trapped in a mountainous area of Taiwan’s Hualien County, after a 7.4-magnitude quake triggered a landslide. (Video: Reuters)

Rescue efforts are now focused on the Taroko Gorge national park where hundreds of hotel workers and tourists remain trapped after the entrance was blocked by fallen rocks.

More than 15 people were also still missing in the gorge, the fire department said Thursday, and rescue workers were using drones and helicopters to search the area.

Drone footage posted by Taiwan’s interior minister, Lin Yu-chang, showed some of the residents trapped in the park under a damaged but intact metal tunnel, waving at the camera.

The quake, which occurred just before 8 a.m. Wednesday and which the U.S. Geological Survey measured at 7.4 in magnitude, was felt across Taiwan and as far as China’s southeastern provinces. It triggered tsunami warnings in Japan and the Philippines that were later lifted.

Live cam footage and security cameras catch the moment a deadly 7.4-magnitude earthquake struck off the east coast of Taiwan on April 3. (Video: Reuters)

The last time Taiwan saw a quake this strong was in 1999, when a 7.6-magnitude tremor struck central Taiwan, killing more than 2,400 people.

After that earthquake, authorities mandated stricter building codes that require new structures be able to withstand quakes up to what Taiwan defines as a level six intensity, where violent shaking makes it difficult to stand and some buildings may be damaged.

Shan, the professor of civil engineering, said the government has strengthened the earthquake resistance of schools and hospitals, adding that “99 percent of the schools in Taiwan comply with existing codes.”

Since 2019, the government has also been reviewing 36,000 buildings across Taiwan that were built before 1999 and giving subsidies to upgrade them.

Even before the 1999 quake, Taiwan had implemented earthquake building codes modeled after the United States. They have been upgraded as researchers learned from quakes elsewhere like an 8.0 magnitude Mexico City earthquake in 1985 where reverberations in soft soil caused more damage, a phenomenon also present in the Taipei Basin in northern Taiwan.

“Taiwan has had remarkable discipline in their seismic building codes, and enforcement of those codes,” said Joseph Barbera, an associate professor at George Washington University who was deployed by USAID to Taiwan after the 1999 quake.

He noted that Taiwan had also built up a strong emergency response system, including response centers that are specially constructed to move with the ground as it shakes during an earthquake.

“The Taiwanese should be commended for their risk reduction as well as their effective response,” he said.

Disaster awareness has also improved among the public. A promotional quiz sponsored by the National Fire Agency last year asked residents questions such as whether they should open the door as soon as an earthquake hits. (The answer is no.) The average score among more than 200,000 test takers was 90 percent.

Taiwan’s all-important advanced computer chip industry has also had years to prepare. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the world’s top maker of high-tech chips, based in central Taiwan, said its facilities were not seriously damaged by Wednesday’s earthquake.

Within 10 hours of the earthquake, 70 percent of production had been restored, the company said in a statement late Wednesday. None of the company’s high-end “lithography” machines, among the most complex pieces of equipment in the world, were damaged, TSMC said.

During a visit to Hualien near the earthquake’s epicenter on April 3, Taiwan President-elect Lai Ching-te said rescuing trapped victims is the top priority. (Video: Taiwan Presidential Office)

The emergency response was not always perfect, residents have pointed out. At least seven counties received no early warning alert, triggering widespread criticism. Taiwan’s Central Weather Administration apologized, saying it underestimated the scale of the earthquake and did not send the alert.

On Thursday, more than 300 households in Hualien still did not have power, and almost 10,000 homes in the area have lost access to running water, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs.

Schools and businesses in Hualien reopened Thursday, and the local railway line also resumed operation. Aftershocks continued to be felt throughout Taiwan, prompting the Central Weather Administration to say that it would no longer announce tremors smaller than magnitude 3.o.

In Hualien, where residents are accustomed to earthquakes, many were still shocked by the strength of the temblor. Andy Liu, 37, who lives in Jian Township, was waiting outside a clinic when it struck.

“It started to shake, and I felt something was off,” he said. “It was shaking so hard I couldn’t stand up.”

Luck also played a major role in the relatively low death toll of the quake, experts pointed out. It struck in the morning when many people were heading to work and not at home.

Moreover, the epicenter was located off the coast, rather than on land, and was near one of Taiwan’s least densely populated regions.

“If this Hualien earthquake were to happen in Taipei, it is a certainty that the situation will be even worse than the Noto earthquake,” said Johnson Kung, a board member of the Taiwan Professional Civil Engineers Association, referring to a 7.5-magnitude quake that hit Japan in January and killed more than 200 people.

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