Learning Lessons from Quake Tragedy Better Buildings, Military Readiness Are among the Reasons Taiwan Toll Is Less Than Turkey's

By Alex Salkever, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 22, 1999 | Go to article overview

Learning Lessons from Quake Tragedy Better Buildings, Military Readiness Are among the Reasons Taiwan Toll Is Less Than Turkey's


Alex Salkever, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Three major temblors in the space of a little more than a month - in Turkey, Greece, and now Taiwan - are enough to set millennium doomsayers crowing. And it's prompting some people to wonder: Are we seeing a kind of global seismic chain reaction? But the pace of big quake activity is normal, scientists say. Sudden slippages of the earth's fractured and evermoving crust trigger an average of 18 quakes of magnitude 7 or more each year. Most strike harmlessly at sea or in unpopulated areas. But when megatremors hit urban areas, the damage is greater. The 7.6 quake that shook Taiwan early on the morning of Sept. 21, killing at least 1,500 people, is the biggest there in 64 years. But it is not connected to the quakes in Turkey and Greece, according to current research. "People have looked for links between big quakes and never found them," says Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist at the University of Hawaii. Nonetheless, the similarities and distinctions between the massive tremors provide scientists and civil authorities with lessons for the future. The Taiwan temblor was more powerful than the Turkish quake, but the outcome was far less severe for the island nation - partly because the epicenter was farther away from the big cities. The majority of buildings held fast and the death toll will likely be several times smaller than that from the Turkey quake, where hundreds of buildings collapsed. In the end, a confluence of geography, economic development, and government preparedness in Taiwan have prevented a far greater loss of life and property. What both nations share is a history of big quakes in this century. In 1939 and 1976, temblors in Turkey measuring 7.9 killed 30,000 and 4,000 respectively. A magnitude 7.4 quake hit Taiwan in 1935 and killed more than 3,000 people, while another, more powerful but less deadly quake measuring 7.8 hit Taiwan in 1984 but claimed only 15 lives. Both the Sept. 21 Taiwan quake and the disaster a month ago in Turkey occurred in the predawn blackness, a time when sleeping victims are easily trapped inside buildings and darkness adds to the confusion of people trying to escape and rescuers trying make sense of the situation. In Turkey and Taiwan, the quakes appear to have been close the earth's surface - meaning the impact on surface structures is greater. "Most very destructive earthquakes are shallow with epicenters of 10 miles to 20 miles or less," explains Robert Urhammer, a research scientist at the University of California at Berkeley Seismology Laboratory. But crucial differences exist. The most important being the location of the epicenter. The quake in Taiwan was centered in a sparsely peopled mountainous region 90 miles south of the capital, Taipei, far from the homes of most of this island nation's 22 million residents. …

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