The earthquake showed that Taiwan was well prepared for a major earthquake – even more so than parts of the US

The powerful earthquake in Taiwan on Wednesday shook an island well prepared for a seismic catastrophe – probably more than some regions of the US, several experts said.

Nine deaths have been reported, although Taiwanese officials said the death toll could rise in the coming days. More than 1,000 were injured and at least 100 were feared trapped. But given the magnitude of the quake – magnitude 7.4 – seismological experts said it appeared the densely populated island had fared as well as initial reports expected.

That’s no coincidence: Taiwan uses a robust warning system and has modern seismic building codes, experts say, and its population is accustomed to frequent seismic activity. After the devastating Chi-Chi earthquake in 1999, the island significantly modernized much of its infrastructure.

“Two thousand four hundred people died. And this time we only reported nine deaths. You see the progress,” said Larry Syu-Heng Lai, a geologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington who grew up and studied in Taiwan. “Our buildings are stronger. Our facilities are better. You can say that we take it seriously, but it is part of everyday life.”

Experts say U.S. cities in earthquake-prone areas along the West Coast are making varying levels of progress in preparing for earthquakes. But none can compare with the capital of Taiwan.

“Seattle doesn’t do as much to prepare – or Portland – as Los Angeles or San Francisco. And neither is doing as much preparation as Taipei,” said Harold Tobin, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and professor at the University of Washington.

A California Highway Patrol officer checks damage to cars that fell when the upper deck of the Bay Bridge collapsed onto the lower deck following the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco on Oct. 17, 1989. (George Nikitin/AP File)

A California Highway Patrol officer checks damage to cars that fell when the upper deck of the Bay Bridge collapsed onto the lower deck following the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco on Oct. 17, 1989. (George Nikitin/AP File)

Officials and researchers in Taiwan are still evaluating the earthquake’s characteristics, impacts and casualties. The lessons they learn could provide American scientists and political leaders with a benchmark for how buildings and communities here could fare.

“These events always give us information to evaluate how well we are doing here in California,” said John Wallace, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In a review of early images and reports from Taiwan after the earthquake, Wallace said it appeared that much of the damage occurred in older concrete buildings five to 10 stories high and with a first floor of open commercial space. Many were on street corners, where buildings can be exposed to twisting forces that increase damage.

“There’s a weak first story that collapses. It concentrates the damage in that first story,” Wallace said.

A damaged building in Hualien City, Taiwan, after an earthquake (TVBS via AP)A damaged building in Hualien City, Taiwan, after an earthquake (TVBS via AP)

A damaged building in Hualien City, Taiwan, after an earthquake (TVBS via AP)

He added that older, concrete buildings are expected to suffer an earthquake and are targeted for renovations in Taiwan and the US. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s tall buildings – which have a higher technical level – appeared to have performed admirably as expected, Wallace said. said.

That includes Taipei 101, the island’s tallest tower, with a 660-ton steel ball suspended in the upper floors by cables – a system designed to dampen movement from high winds and earthquakes.

“If what appears to have happened holds up – given the size of this earthquake and the proximity to land, overall they’ve done quite well there. I hate saying that when people were getting killed,” Tobin said.

Nearly 25 years ago, the magnitude 7.7 Chi-Chi earthquake prompted Taiwan to better prepare.

Syu-Heng Lai was 11 when the earthquake struck and still remembers how the shock woke him up in his family’s apartment in TaiPei and almost threw him out of bed.

After that, he noticed that the island was slowly transforming to better limit risks. At school there was a new emphasis and training on earthquake safety. And over the next decade, political leaders introduced new building codes, reclassified seismic zones and designated emergency command centers in rural areas, Syu-Heng Lai said.

Wallace flew to Taiwan a week after the Chi-Chi earthquake and helped inspect bridges in its aftermath. In the years that followed, he said, the island began evaluating and renovating school buildings, then moving to the oldest buildings most at risk of collapse.

The initiatives are similar to those in Southern California, Wallace said: “We’ve basically done pretty much the same thing.”

However, he added that he thinks Taiwan moved more quickly because frequent, smaller earthquakes kept the issue top of mind.

Other West Coast states lag behind California. Washington only began systematically evaluating its schools in the past decade, and many of Seattle’s old brick buildings have not been renovated and are likely to collapse in a major earthquake.

Taiwan’s advanced early warning system is also an important part of its security infrastructure. The system relies on an island-wide network of seismic instruments; When a major earthquake occurs, the system sends messages to people’s phones and automatically switches to live TV programs to give residents seconds of warning.

Some aspects of it are similar to the systems used in California, Oregon and Washington.

“In the US, our ShakeAlert system has the ability to send Amber Alert-style messages to all our phones, but it is not connected to the broadcast media in the same way,” Tobin said.

Video on social media showed TV footage from Taiwanese news programs showing on-screen warnings arriving before the shaking started, Tobin said.

In Taiwan, “there is a more comprehensive warning capability,” he said.

The systems in both countries work by detecting ‘P waves’ from an earthquake and calculating their strength before sending alerts over internet networks.

“Earthquakes send out different waves – ripples on a pond – from the epicenter,” Tobin said. “The ripples that spread fastest are not the harmful ones, they are a harbinger, a Paul Revere rider.”

Syu-Heng Lai said Taiwan’s progress in earthquake safety was gradual and required public education, as well as trust in the government and faith in scientists.

“It’s taken us 25 years to get to this point,” he says.

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