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Taiwan emerges remarkably unscathed after massive earthquake

A police officer stands guard near a partially collapsed building a day after a powerful earthquake struck in Hualien City, eastern Taiwan, Thursday, April 4, 2024.
ChiangYing-ying
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AP
A police officer stands guard near a partially collapsed building a day after a powerful earthquake struck in Hualien City, eastern Taiwan, Thursday, April 4, 2024.

HUALIEN CITY, Taiwan – A massive, 7.4 magnitude earthquake that hit Taiwan Wednesday morning sent bridges swaying and buried mountainous roads in landslides.

"The road below my feet suddenly turned into what felt like waves on water," said Vincent Tseng, a Hualien resident.

Yet, the day after what was the worst quake to hit the Asian island in a quarter century, most residents cannot stop talking about how much worse it could have been.

As of Thursday local time, authorities say nine people were killed during the quake and just over 1,000 people were injured. Train service through the epicenter was restored within 24 hours.

"It is quite remarkable that given an earthquake of this magnitude, we have seen so few reported causalities," says Daniel Aldrich, a political science professor at Northeastern University who studies earthquake resilience around the world. "India and Haiti faced less powerful earthquakes but had far more casualties and Taiwan has managed to have so few."

The last time Taiwan experienced an earthquake at this scale was in 1999, when more than 2,000 people died in a 7.3 magnitude quake that hit central Taiwan and collapsed more than 100,000 buildings. Post-quake audits found shoddily enforced building codes and poor quality materials.

"At that moment, Taiwan reorganized its disaster response and began a number of attempts at bottom-up and top-down responses to shocks," Aldrich says. "What we're seeing in 2024 is a direct outcome of the previous response and governmental criticism."

Over the next 25 years, Taiwan embarked on a campaign to retrofit and reinforce existing bridges and buildings to withstand more intensive seismic waves, while mandating strict adherence to earthquake-resistant building codes. Much of the island's housing stock was built before 1999.

"We have upgraded our infrastructure a lot since then, including thickening walls and adding pillars," Zheng Rushi, a civil engineer with the Hualian municipal government, told NPR on Thursday.

Taiwan also instituted an earthquake alert system, though the system malfunctioned on Wednesday.

Each earthquake Taiwan experienced has offered a learning experience. Following a deadly 2016 earthquake, engineers discovered that a collapsed high-rise building had used faulty designs that favored big, open lobbies. Such designs left its bases weak, which were in part to blame for the higher number of fatalities and collapses.

Among the updated codes are more robust steel rebar designs embedded in reinforced concrete, strengthening building foundations, and staging regular earthquake drills among the general public.

Rescue workers are shown looking for possible victims within the remains of an apartment that collapsed in the magnitude 6.4 earthquake, in the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan on Feb. 10, 2016.
ANTHONY WALLACE / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Rescue workers are shown looking for possible victims within the remains of an apartment that collapsed in the magnitude 6.4 earthquake, in the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan on Feb. 10, 2016.

"The most important the task that we have done is the retrofit for the whole schools," says Kuo-Fong Ma, a research fellow and seismologist at the Academia Sinica in Taipei.

The measures are crucial, given Taiwan's familiarity with earthquakes. Every year, the island experiences more than 2,000 small quakes a year, though only a fraction are sizable enough to be noticeable to humans. At least three dozen active geological fault lines run underneath Taiwan.

The island's east coast is especially vulnerable to earthquakes, because it sits on some of the biggest fault lines. A magnitude 7.2 earthquake in September 2022 south of Wednesday's quake, near the eastern city of Taitung, killed one person.

"Taiwan has invested a lot of time and resources to make infrastructure more resilient to earthquakes," saysTrevor Carey, a civil engineering professor at the University of British Columbia who traveled to Taiwan after the 2022 quakes to assess and learn from the damage.

"The team saw a lot of things that confirmed newer or updated infrastructure or retrofits did better during an earthquake, and older non-retrofitted [buildings] did not do as well."

In Hualien, a low-lying city on Taiwan's east coast close to the epicenter of Wednesday's earthquake, residents had largely returned to life as normal, and fewer than 100 buildings were damaged or destroyed during the earthquake, city authorities said.

A damaged, multi-story building in the center of the city listed to its side while city workers piled a huge mound of dirt in front to prop the building up before they demolish it later this week. Rescuers had pulled 24 people out of the building on Wednesday. The buildings around it remained intact.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Emily Feng
Emily Feng is an international correspondent for NPR covering China, Taiwan and beyond.