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

By Wayne Chang, Nectar Gan and Ivan Watson, CNN

Hualien, Taiwan (CNN) — Wu was preparing breakfast for guests at the small hotel he runs in Taiwan’s Hualien County when the shelves around him shook violently and the mountain behind his house roared.

Fearing the building would collapse, he rushed his guests to safety outdoors. Across the river, steep slopes were slipping from the mountains, the air swallowed by clouds of dust.

But Wu’s house suffered little damage from Wednesday’s 7.4 magnitude tremor, Taiwan’s most powerful in 25 years, something he attributes to a wider push to make the island more quake-resistant.

“Our government conducted a comprehensive review of building codes after the 1999 earthquake, and all buildings going up must use new technologies that make them more resilient to earthquakes,” 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.

And experts say changes like this have helped the tremor-prone island avoid mass casualties in quakes like the one that hit on Wednesday.

“I feel very lucky,” says Wu of the remarkably low-level damage wrought by the massive quake. “It’s not too bad.”

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

Stores and restaurants have reopened, as have roadside stalls selling fruit, vegetables and snacks. Trains to the city, suspended as a precaution on Wednesday, have resumed and are running on schedule.

The most potent sign of the quake is a 10-story red-brick tower in the city center, leaning precariously at a 45-degree angle after its ground floor collapsed. Excavators have heaped rubble at the base of the Uranus Building, to prop it up.

Emergency workers have started repairing dozens of damaged buildings and demolishing four deemed impossible to save. But for the most part, the city of 100,000 people on Taiwan’s scenic east coast has emerged unscathed.

That is not to understate the earthquake’s power. Taiwan’s seismologists describe the tremor as having an energy equivalent to 32 of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima. It rocked the entire island of Taiwan and was felt as far away as Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Chong, a 52-year-old housekeeper, said she had lived through plenty of earthquakes in Hualien. “But the scale of this earthquake was very frightening,” she said. “I’ve never experienced an earthquake this big in my 50 years here in Hualien.”

Wednesday’s earthquake shook more parts of Taiwan with greater intensity than any other quake since 1999, when a 7.7 magnitude tremor hit the middle of the island, killing 2,400 people and injuring 10,000 others.

But this time, the number of casualties is much lower. As of Thursday, 10 people had been killed and just over 1,000 were injured, while two dozen remained missing, according to authorities.

“It is a pretty miraculous outcome,” said Daniel Aldrich, a professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University who studies the resilience of cities, calling the toll “a very low number of deaths by a strong, powerful earthquake near an urban center.”

“The other disasters around 7.5 (magnitude) have caused far more casualties than we’ve seen so far in Taiwan,” he said, citing the tens of thousands of deaths during previous quakes in Haiti, India and China.

‘We grew up with quakes’

Wednesday’s quake struck Taiwan’s rural east coast. The island’s west is where most people live, home to the largest cities, an extensive high-speed rail network and much of the industrial heartland.

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

The victims were mostly killed outdoors by falling rocks or landslides. Four of them were hiking in Taroko Gorge, four died on mountainous highways, and another was working at a remote quarry, according to authorities.

So far, only one person was killed in a collapsed building – the Uranus Building in downtown Hualien. She initially escaped but went back to rescue her pet cat, CNN affiliate SET reported.

Taiwan’s recent push for preparedness comes from the hard lessons learned from the devastating quake 25 years ago, experts say.

When the earthquake struck in 1999, Taiwan was very unprepared, Aldrich said, citing corruption in the construction industry, the lack of building regulations, and inadequate coordination in rescue efforts.

That quake left more than 100,000 buildings across Taiwan completely or partially collapsed, including nearly 300 schools. Buildings were also flattened in the capital Taipei, about 100 miles from the epicenter.

“What we’ve seen since then are massive upgrades across the board, what I would call a top-down on a bottom-up set of responses,” Aldrich said.

From the top down, the government strengthened disaster management laws, improved coordination for rescue and relief, and enforced stricter building codes for earthquake resistance.

“They’ve issued massive fines and penalties for construction firms found to have in any way cut corners on their construction. And there has been a really serious investment in all the new buildings,” Aldrich said.

The government launched a campaign to evaluate, retrofit or rebuild public buildings to enhance their ability to withstand stronger quakes, with schools being a priority. The campaign has since extended to private buildings, such as 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.

The mayor of Hualien, Wei Chia-yen, attributes the relatively low death toll in his city to advanced preparation.

“Here in Hualien, we grew up with earthquakes,” he said inside a gymnasium turned shelter at a primary school, set up within hours of the quake.

Rows of tents have been put up for residents whose homes have been damaged, or who are afraid to return due to aftershocks, while boxes of food and drinks are spread out on the tables.

Wei was himself injured by a cabinet falling on his left leg and was using crutches to get around the shelter.

“Our teachers and relatives always taught us how to react when earthquakes strike,” he said. “So we’ve known about this since we were kids.”

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