88/9/21, that is. Or 21st September 1999 to us. At 1:47am the ground shook with an earthquake of magnitude 7.3. The epicentre was beneath the town of Chi-Chi (or Jiji) a few miles west of Sun Moon Lake. Five days later there was an aftershock of 6.7 magnitude. Number of people who died: 2,455. A fault line had appeared, running 60 miles north south along the foot of the mountains where it reaches the coastal plain which contains this city, Taichung: a gash where the ground was lifted on the landward side by anything from 4ft to 30ft from its previous position.
Those are the bald statistics, which you can read anywhere, or vaguely recall from UK news coverage. Our last tourist objective on the plains was to visit the museum commemorating this event, to get a real sense of the devastating effects on the ground and on the communities, to understand their remarkable resilience in living with the threat of such disasters, and to marvel at the power of nature.
What is totally remarkable is how little destruction there was, and how few lives were lost, bearing in mind that this is a city of around a million people. Cities like this in earthquake zones, though full of tower blocks like anywhere else in the world, are built to withstand the earth tremours which typically occur a few times a day round here. The only destruction on 9/21was to those buildings actually on the fault line, unable to withstand one half of the footings being lifted up to 30 feet in height, and the odd occasion when one of these buildings was caused to lean over onto an adjacent one. Loss of life was from the destruction of the very few apartment blocks directly on the fault line, full of sleeping people. A few feet either side of the actual fault line, everything remained exactly as normal.
The museum is built round the ruins of a school that lay on the path of the fault. There was no-one there as it was night time, and as people’s homes weren’t involved, someone had the foresight to preserve the mangled structure and turn it into a memorial and museum to the earthquake. The structure has been left as it was after the quake, although is shored up for safety.
There are newly built modern display halls and theatres featuring dramatic photographs from the time and charting the recovery period. An aerial photographic record shows the path of the fault, the land and the city like a page torn in half and the sections placed back together incorrectly, perfectly OK either side and a narrow line of destruction meandering its deadly course. The track of the fault is shown with a yellow dotted line.
Most telling are, of course, the actual ruins, and the fault line which lifted up about two-thirds of the school’s running track. The track now descends a bank of 4 feet and ascends again to the higher level a bit further round. The track surface is, of course, ripped to bits.
So there were photos of bridges collapsed where they crossed the fault,
and buildings with floors and roofs collapsed into an unsightly pile.
Fields of rice, flat for flooding, now left on two levels.
The final hall was devoted to the response and the reconstruction. Apparently within three minutes a government committee had been formed and by 6am a lot of rescue effort had been mobilised. The Government immediately diverted billions of Taiwanese dollars to providing support, food and replacement housing. 28 other countries immediately weighed in with emergency assistance.
Jimmy’s mum felt the shocks but was OK, Jimmy himself was in the northern city of Taipei that night and slept through it. Most people in the region had some family or friends affected, and all got involved in helping out with whatever was needed. Building prefabs was the major task of the army. In the light of this experience they’ve further updated their disaster response programme and all mobile phones can be immediately contacted by the emergency notification authority.
A most poignant experience.
Back to work tomorrow: two performances up in the mountains, one starting at 10pm to mark the coming of the New Year, the other at 4.30am, with the climax at sunrise – they call it ‘first light’. Should be unforgettable!