How to Protect Yourself During Taiwan Earthquakes

An aerial photograph shows the flooded and landslide-affected area after Typhoon Morakot swept through, in Kaohsiung county, southern Taiwan August 13, 2009. (Reuters, Su Sheng-bin)

When an invisible hand beings to swing ceiling lamps around, it’s probably one of the 2,200 earthquakes shaking Taiwan every year. Only a fraction of them, 214, can be felt. Stronger quakes will make themselves known in Taipei — that’s life in a geologically-connected place.

Alerts go out if a strong earthquake is coming, but they usually reach my Apple Watch moments after the shaking is over. Earlier alerts would be helpful, though a survey sample of myself indicates more alerts are counterproductive. Some say more frequent alerts reach you faster if you download an app like EEW地震速報 (Early Earthquake Warning). I’ve yet to test that as I could do without a fresh source for anxiety. Generally, it’s not a good idea to give energy to things that can’t be physically or emotionally felt.

Most earthquakes only cause a few items to fall over (taiwanreporter)

The worst that usually happens in cities is the Taipei Metro (MRT) stops running and a few items fall off shelves, like at a 7-Eleven in the above photo by Klaus Bardenhagen from last weekend’s earthquake (October 24, 2021), which registered a 6.5 on the Richter scale. That’s a big boom. For comparison, an atomic bomb of the same type as the Hiroshima design has the impact of a 5.0 earthquake. Yet I’m not worried.

‘Taiwan Model’ for Earthquakes?

Many of Taiwan’s most important exports aren’t products, but first-class know-how that came out of real-world experience protecting people and high-stakes production.

Cameras are everywhere in Taiwan

These are the kind of lessons we learn one disaster at a time, like the 7.7 Nantou earthquake which claimed 2,400 lives in 1999, another 6.5 Kaohsiung earthquake in 2016 which resulted in 550 deaths, and subsequent earthquakes that seem to be happening more frequently and producing less collateral damage.

Let’s give credit where its due. Following the 1999 Nantou earthquake, Taiwan enacted the Disaster Prevention and Response Act in July 2000, putting into place a foundation for a continuously improving disaster prevention and protection system.

To Taiwan’s diligence (and some luck), none of the world’s biggest humanitarian disasters from earthquakes have taken place here. Taiwan carries out world-class research in analyzing and modeling earthquakes using geographical information systems (GIS) and risk management models that provide standardized tools for estimating hazards such as the Taiwan Earthquake Loss Estimation System (TELES). In this regard, Taiwan stands with the world’s best.

Another modern example of earthquake readiness in civil engineering is one of Taipei 101’s attractions, a 720-ton suspended steel ball that keeps its 101 floors (get it?) steady.

Because Taiwanese expect earthquakes and typhoons, that research factors into bend-but-don’t-break strategies for the design and construction of civic structures like buildings, the high-speed rail and overpasses.

Some world leaders talk of ‘The Taiwan Model’ for COVID-19 pandemic management, but another, lesser-known Taiwan Model is disaster management plans and structural safety innovations in factories — especially those serving semiconductor industries, which tend to be built to support very specific and precise technologies.

Sample Scenario-based Topic Map for Technology-based Disaster Management in Taiwan (Li et al, 2011)

But just as there are companies that go bankrupt due to their own inadequacies, there’s space for improvement in planning, preparedness and disaster response. Taiwan’s defining characteristic, in my view, is it’s a very uneven place. If Taiwan is in the world news, it’s usually due to its awkward geopolitical situation or disaster porn. And yes, Taiwan is improving, but improving from what? New Bloom’s Brian Hioe points out many substandard buildings are still standing. A few are still being built, the legacy of:

“An entrenched culture of illegal cost-cutting measures by construction companies which may ultimately return to Taiwan’s issues with crony capitalism.”

Hualien Earthquake Tragic, Raises Questions Regarding Disaster Preparedness for Taiwan,’ New Bloom, February 12, 2016

“Drop, Cover, Hold On” and More Tips

Earthquakes in Taiwan are a bigger danger in the rural mountains which cover 70% of the island, where they can trigger rockslides, disturbing roads and villages. Fewer people are affected, though those who are need more help.

Of the 9.7% that can be felt, a far smaller percentage will scare city dwellers, who benefit from newer construction. I’ve still found them to be frightening in tall buildings or pencil-thin towers — the kind where each floor is an apartment. Higher floors sway slowly, lower floors feel more rapid vibrations.

Some general best practices for staying safe and protecting yourself during and after a quake:

How to stay safe and protect yourself during an earthquake
  • You’re safer indoors than outdoors, because of the possibility of falling debris
  • People who are already outdoors should go away from buildings and find open spaces. If you’re near the ocean, move inland to avoid big waves. If you find yourself by cliffs, there may be falling rocks and you should move away.
  • Move away from crowds, because panic is contagious.
  • In case you’re driving, pull over to the side, stop the car, stay inside. If possible, avoid bridges, over and underpasses.

If you’re already indoors:

  • Drop, Cover, Hold On. Drop under a heavy piece of furniture, cover your head and chest, hold on to the furniture.
  • Also: Don’t face windows, because they shatter. Avoid shelves with heavy objects.
  • If there’s no heavy furniture, find an inside wall, crouch and cover your head.
  • Avoid elevators. If the power goes out, you’ll be stuck.

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