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How did so much of Taiwan's infrastructure stay standing after the recent quake?


Taiwan is still working today to rescue about 670 people who are trapped by a massive 7.4 magnitude earthquake that hit the island on Wednesday. The quake also killed at least 12 people, but many credit the island's earthquake-resistant infrastructure with saving lives. NPR's Emily Feng is with us now to tell us the latest. Emily, hello.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: Good morning. So you just traveled to the earthquake epicenter. Where is that? And what did you see?

FENG: It's on the east coast of Taiwan near a city called Hualien. And when I went there, I saw some collapsed buildings, some cracks in foundations. People were stabilizing these collapsed buildings and getting ready to demolish them, actually, for safety. And I spoke to Jung Wu-Xu (ph), who is a city civil engineer in the city. He was standing next to a collapsed building.

JUNG WU-XU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says he rushed to the building as soon as the quake happened because he needed to tell a team of rescue workers nearby whether the building was structurally sound enough for them to go in. And it was - barely. They managed to pull out more than 20 people. But one person did die in that building because she ran back in later to save her cat.

Of the 670 people who are still trapped, these are people mostly stuck in remote mountain regions where the roads are not cleared, and many of them are stuck in a tourist site called Taroko Gorge, which is a gorgeous mountain hiking area but really prone to landslides. And I actually met one British woman who was stuck there overnight. She said she didn't want to be recorded because the trauma was just too recent. But she was hiking alone when the quake happened. Boulders came crashing down, and they blocked her trailhead, though eventually she found some other hikers, and they clambered out down these wild ravines.

MARTIN: Wow. So what is the assessment for overall damage on the island?

FENG: It is surprisingly minimal. I mean, less than a day after, the trains were running into the epicenter already because people worked overnight to dig out the tracks from landslides. And in the epicenter in Hualien City, only about 100 buildings were collapsed. At least 12 people died, as you mentioned. But compared to the last earthquake that hit Taiwan at this magnitude - that was in 1999 - then, about 2,400 people died, and a hundred thousand buildings and homes were damaged. Since then, Taiwan's really worked on quake safety and engineering. And you see that now in the low casualty numbers this time.

MARTIN: Could you just say more about that? How did Taiwan prepare much of its infrastructure for earthquakes?

FENG: Well, it really started since that 1999 earthquake that I mentioned. Over the last 25 years, they've done this piecemeal overhaul of all of their building codes so that bridges and schools and homes can withstand stronger earthquakes. And they're actually enforcing the building codes, which is important. Taiwan also treats every earthquake - and there are a lot of them in Taiwan - as a learning opportunity. Here's Kuo-Fong Ma, who's a research fellow and seismologist at the Academia Sinica, a research institute in Taipei.

KUO-FONG MA: So they actually do a very detailed archive to explain, what's the reason this building collapsed? What's the reason this building survived?

FENG: And this is important, because much of housing in Taiwan is at least three to four decades old. So if they find a building that's deficient, they add pillars. They thicken the walls. They add stronger steel rebar into the concrete walls to make them more resilient and strong but also flexible so that they sway - they don't break - in quakes. And you saw that save lives this time around.

MARTIN: That's really fascinating. That is NPR's Emily Feng. Emily, thank you so much.

FENG: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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