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Interview with Key Contributors

Former President Lee Teng-hui


When the earthquake struck that night, I was in my study. In the first few seconds, the lights dimmed and the earth shook violently. I was shocked and worried about the scale of the disaster following such a strong quake.

I soon received reports of an earthquake that measured 7.3 on the Richter scale, with its epicenter in Nantou.

The first reports were that the Nantou Winery had exploded, most areas in Taiwan were without electricity, and that there were heavy casualties in Nantou and Taichung counties.

Grim reports flowed in one after another, listing the disaster areas and damage. The thought of the many people who might be waiting in the darkness for help caused me indescribable anguish.

While inspecting disaster areas in Taichung County, President Lee Teng-hui thanked British rescue workers for helping 921 Earthquake victims. (Sept. 24, 1999 CNA)

When I was told that troops were being deployed for rescue work, I was a bit relieved, but I was praying for daylight to come so I could visit the disaster areas and see for myself.

Rescue work was top priority

When I arrived in Nantou at 9:50 a.m., the sight of collapsed houses, twisted roads and damaged cars everywhere broke my heart. At the end of a briefing at the Rescue and Relief Operations Center, I instructed that top priority be given to rescuing people and preparing the hospitals to treat the injured.

The next most important step was to provide shelter for those who had lost their homes. The military was deployed to search for and assist victims, rebuild damaged roads and repair telecommunication facilities.

Earthquake victims in Nantou County presented locally produced bananas to express their gratitude to President Lee Teng-hui for his concern about their sufferings and losses in the 921 Earthquake. (Dec. 26, 1999 CNA)

State of emergency declared in aftermath of quake

At the first high-level meeting that day, Legislative Yuan President Wang Jin-pyng raised the issue of declaring a state of emergency. However, that was not yet necessary, as the Executive Yuan had formulated a 15-point guideline on rescue and relief and the Ministry of National Defense had adopted 12 corresponding measures.

But as the rescue work came to an end on 24 September, I instructed Premier Vincent Siew to call a Cabinet meeting the next day to discuss the scope, timeframe and reach of an emergency decree because many legal restrictions had to be removed before the reconstruction work could begin.

Japan donated 1,000 prefab housing units

Thanks to the assistance of Japanese parliamentarian Yuriko Koike, Japan donated 1,000 prefabricated housing units to Taiwan for earthquake survivors.

Because we expanded the Japanese housing units and furnished them with cable TV, refrigerators and washing machines, some people were reluctant to move when the time came for them to do so.

I went to the disaster areas quite often and I would ask the 921 Earthquake Post-Disaster Recover Commission to deal with the problems I noticed. When I learned that the central government could not expedite its appropriation of most of its NT$200 billion reconstruction fund due to procedural regulations, I, as party chairman, asked the ruling Kuomintang to give money to the towns and villages that needed help, demonstrating that the central government would always help those in need.

After inspecting all the disaster areas, I made 13 recommendations. The first was that reconstruction projects should be carefully planned based on local needs and with the goal of creating a safer and more culturally rich environment. Most of the other suggestions, such as revising construction laws and regulations, relocating aboriginal villages, and expanding forestation, were put in place. I believe all these actions contributed to successful post-disaster reconstruction.

43 prefabricated housing units and 100 lavatories Japan donated to Taiwan for 921 Earthquake survivors were being unloaded at the Taichung Harbor. (Oct. 9, 1999 CNA)

Chunghua Search and Rescue Brigade did a great job

The Chunghua Search and Rescue Brigade, composed of volunteers from throughout society and with a training center in the Sanhsia Great Wall Amusement Park, was the first private group of its kind in Taiwan. Members of the brigade, in their orange-red uniforms, could be seen at every disaster site, risking their lives to save victims. These volunteers deserve commendation and gratitude for their efforts.

When the earthquake struck Taiwan, I prayed to God for the capability to help our people overcome their difficulties. Now in retirement, I do believe that the two most meaningful things I did in my 12 years as president were to help bring about the gradual democratization of Taiwan and help the country recover from the 921 Earthquake. Assigning military troops to rescue and relief missions in major disasters has become a pattern that other nations now follow. I very much appreciate the great contribution made by our soldiers.

When one is out of office, one should not say too much. I will only say that during the last six months of my presidency I did my best to identify the problems and try to solve them in the hope of helping the reconstruction efforts. I have nothing to be ashamed of and I have no regrets.

A large group of victims in Taichung County told President Lee Teng-hui their sufferings when he inspected a 14-story building damaged in the 921 Earthquake. (Sept. 24, 1999 CNA)

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