An earthquake showed that Taiwan was well prepared for a big one – more so than parts of the US

The powerful earthquake in Taiwan on Wednesday shook an island that was well prepared for a seismic disaster – more prone than some regions of the US, some experts said.

Nine people were reported dead, 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 to have been arrested. But due to the magnitude of the quake – magnitude 7.4 – seismological experts said it appeared the compact island had survived as well as initial reports had predicted.

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

“Two thousand four hundred people died. And this time, only nine people have been reported dead. 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 tell we take it seriously – but it’s part of everyday life.”

Experts said US cities in earthquake-prone areas along the West Coast are making varying degrees of progress to prepare for temblors. But none measure up to Taiwan’s capital.

“Seattle is not doing 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 a professor at the University of Washington.

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

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

Officials and researchers in Taiwan are still assessing the characteristics, impacts and casualties of the earthquake. The lessons they learn could provide US scientists and political leaders with a yardstick for how buildings and communities here might fare.

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

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

“There are a hundred weak stories that fall out. It focuses 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 would be expected to struggle in an earthquake and are the targets of retrofits in Taiwan and the U.S. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s tall buildings – which have a level their higher engineering – excellently, as expected, Wallace. said.

That includes Taipei 101, the tallest tower on the island, which has a 660 metric ton steel ball suspended by cables at its top stories – a system designed to mitigate movement from high winds and earthquakes.

“If it looks like it happened – because of the magnitude of this earthquake and its proximity to land, they’ve been pretty successful there. I hate to say when people were killed,” Tobin said.

Almost 25 years ago, the magnitude-7.7 Chi-Chi earthquake catalyzed Taiwan towards better preparation.

Syu-Heng Lai was 11 when the quake hit and can still remember how the temblor shook him awake at his family’s apartment in TaiPei and nearly threw him out of bed.

After that, he noticed the island slowly changing to better mitigate risk. At school, there was a new emphasis and training on earthquake safety. And over the next decade, political leaders instituted 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 later years, he said, the island began by evaluating and retrofitting school buildings and then moved on to the oldest buildings most at risk of collapse.

The initiatives are similar to those in Southern California, Wallace said: “We were basically doing the same thing.”

However, he said he thinks Taiwan moved more quickly because smaller, more frequent earthquakes kept the issue at bay.

Other West Coast states are behind California. Washington hasn’t begun to systematically evaluate its schools in 10 years, and many of Seattle’s old brick buildings have not been retrofitted and are likely to collapse in a major earthquake.

Taiwan’s sophisticated early warning system is an important part of its safety infrastructure. The system relies on a network of seismic instruments across the island; when a major tremor occurs, the system sends messages to people’s phones and automatically cuts to live television programs to give residents seconds of warning.

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

“In the United States, our ShakeAlert system has the ability to send Amber Alert-style messages to all of our phones, but it’s not wired in the same way in broadcast media,” Tobin said.

A video on social media showed television footage of Taiwanese news programs in which warnings appeared on the screen before the shaking began, according to Tobin.

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 through internet networks.

“Earthquakes send different waves — ripples on a pond — from the epicenter,” Tobin said. “The ripples that spread the 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 took us 25 years to get to this point,” he said.

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