It can come as a real shock to experience an earthquake for the first time. The world starts to spin, and even after a few minutes pass, your body still feels as if it’s in motion. Taiwan’s precarious location on the geologically unstable ring of fire – pressed between the Philippine and Eurasian tectonic plates – makes earthquakes a common part of daily life. It helps to be prepared for them in every way you can.
By Stuart Hill
It started in sleep as an uneasiness that rapidly intensified into a nightmare-like response that prodded me to semi-consciousness. My flatmate was already shaking me to wake up. “Are you okay?” she said. She sounded worried.
“Yes, what’s wrong?” I replied.
The lights were out. I pulled back the sheets and tried to get up. Books and other things were scattered across the floor beneath my feet. I moved carefully, sleepy and blind, out into the living room. My other flatmate was asking if I was okay as he fumbled for something in a drawer.
“What happened?” I asked, still not clear what was going on.
“There’s been a big earthquake.”
It was almost 2am, September 21, 1999. We’d just been hit with a 7.3 magnitude earthquake, the biggest in over 30 years, and the most damaging since the BaiHe Earthquake in 1964.
There were no lights on anywhere down the street. Power had been completely cut off. We checked the phone and surprisingly it was still working. My friend called her family who were living across town – they seemed to be okay. We sat in the glow of a single candle stuck to the kitchen table. A friend of mine called on the phone and asked if things were safe. “Yes, fine.”
And then it came; an aftershock that was extremely unnerving and was later measured to be 6 on the Richter scale, not quite as powerful as the original earthquake that shook Taiwan less than 30 minutes before.
It was then I understood that dread in the voices of my friends.
In the days that followed what is now known as Taiwan’s 921 Earthquake I met up with Australian friends who also had no previous experience of tremors, especially of this size and impact.
One was living around MinSheng West Road near the Mackay Hospital. She and her mother, currently visiting from Australia, moved out on to the park that is located above the Danshui MRT line. “We couldn’t go back inside.” But there was nowhere else to go.
Another friend, in town on business and staying at the Hilton opposite the Taipei Main Station, was shaken out of bed on the 11th floor of his hotel. A colleague staying a few floors above was still in shock when I met her the next day. Guests of the hotel were driven by fear to carry blankets out onto the street opposite the hotel, worried that the building might fall down. There was news of a hotel collapse in one end of town and with so many old concrete buildings crammed together, nowhere really seemed safe. The hotel’s power generator meant that the Hilton was operating on its own soon after everywhere else went dark. That next day, sitting in the bar, watching CNN reporting on the disaster with endless “no new news” updates, we followed every scrap of information with acute interest, reliving our anxieties in 15 minute loops.
Even days after surviving the multiple shocks that literally rocked and shocked the nation, Taipei’s manic vibe had been reduced to a dull stillness. It was a kind of stupor. Our world had stopped. The flat cement pavement outside my apartment building now featured a crack along the full length of the four shops located there. It was its own fault line that had shifted a few centimetres apart, a kind of architectural imperfection left as a reminder of what we’d experienced. It eventually became a nuisance to pedestrians, making you decide which side of the pavement you wanted to walk on.
Before power had been restored to our section of Neihu, I had nights eating at my local ma and pop restaurants, often to candle light and blanketed in an unusual quiet created by blacked out TVs and the muted whispers of other patrons. One creative shop owner had lit up his store with the single beam of his motor scooter parked outside. Inside we ate basic stir-fry dishes cooked in the shifting shadows created by the light of gas burners in his kitchen.
Over the weeks and months that followed, power was gradually restored to Taipei, while the rest of Taiwan slowly got back to a half-hearted life. There were announcements of huge donation drives for the people down south most affected by this national disaster. People were giving up blankets, food, and daily essentials so they could be sent to more needy people. Companies announced their employees were donating cash to the rescue and recovery effort. Meanwhile rescue crews arrived from around the world, while Taiwan’s central government seemed to be in disarray.
My Chinese classes had resumed after a postponement of two weeks. We were now moved from the basement of our language institute to the upper storey of our school. It was hot; there was no artificial lighting or air conditioning. The mood of the students was diligent, but we missed the enthusiasm of previous semesters. Our teachers did what they could to keep the routine of vocab drills going, but considering what we had survived neither teachers nor students were much interested in abstracted learning at this point.
Earthquakes are an extremely common occurrence in Taiwan. The Central Weather Bureau (CWB) is responsible for reporting on them, and their website lists recent earthquake events.
In fact, it is very common for 3-4 magnitude earthquakes to be felt each month, especially off the coast of Hualien. Fortunately, shakes of greater scale and impact are rare, with only a few in the last few centuries causing extensive loss of life and property.
Some of the most notable events include:
- 1792 centered on Chiayi, killed over 600 and destroyed over 24,600 buildings
- 1848 centered on Chiayi, killed over 1,000 and destroyed over 14,000 buildings
- 1906 centered on Chiayi, killed over 1,200 people and destroyed over 6,700 buildings
- 1935 centered on Hsinchu, killed over 3,000 people and destroyed almost 18,000 buildings
- 1964 centered on Chiayi, killed over 100 people and destroyed almost 11,000 buildings
- 1999 hit Taiwan-wide, killed over 2,400 people and destroyed over 51,000 buildings
Here is a longer list on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_earthquakes_in_Taiwan
Taiwan’s Central Weather Bureau provides some advice for dealing with earthquakes on their website. Some of their key tips include:
- Turn off gas, water and electricity
- Keep objects firmly secured, be aware of the potential for objects to fall (inside and outside)
- Do not rush out of buildings during a quake, and don’t use elevators
- After a major earthquake, be aware of the potential for tsunamis along coastal areas
To that I’d suggest the following for preparing for earthquakes in Taiwan (which you could apply to typhoons also):
- Always have a torch and radio available with fully charged batteries.
- When the earthquake starts, don’t stand near windows or shelves or anything that can fall on you or you can fall from (like a balcony)
- Have a home phone that does not require electricity to operate
- Keep a few food supplies at home that don’t require heating or water to eat
- Keep a few bottles of water at home
A humorous look at what you can do to survive an earthquake (found on youtube):