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Interview with Key Contributors

Both A Victim and Deputy Chief of Rescue Operation


Minister PK Chiang (left) discusses with Taichung County Magistrate Liao Youn-lai the post-quake reconstruction. (Nov. 23, 1999 CNA)

I had several roles in the events of the 921 Earthquake. First, I was a victim because my old home partially collapsed and two members of my family died in the quake. I drove back to Nantou on the first day after the quake and joined the rescue efforts on the spot when the Central Emergency Operation Center made contact with Nantou.

Starting the folloeing day, Vice President Lien Chan took command of the rescue operations and I, in my second role, was one of his three deputies. The other two were Governor Chao Shou-po of Taiwan Province and an Army general.

From the operation headquarters in Chung Hsing Village, I went to disaster areas in Taichung County and found out my uncle’s house was one of those on an entire street in Chungliao that had been destroyed by the quake and that his wife and son had been killed.

One week after the catastrophe, we decided that it was necessary to set up a forward command post for reconstruction work. Vice President Lien wanted me to take charge of that, but eventually President Lee Teng-hui assigned Vice Premier Liu Chao-shiuan to the task. However, I had already made extensive preparation for the operation, which was my third role in the aftermath of the quake.

My fourth role was to formulate a five-year post-disaster reconstruction plan in my capacity as minister of Economic Planning and Development. We had detailed plans regarding the reconstruction of communities and industries and the rehabilitation of people – tasks that would be overseen by various committees.

Ministries and Counties Help with Reconstruction of Damaged Villages and Towns

Premier Vincent Siew was heading a separate operation and he maintained close contact with the rescue operations center under Vice President Lien’s command. I proposed that in order to expedite the reconstruction work, each central government agency, county and city in the rest of the country pitch in to help rebuild a damaged village or town. The suggestion was taken up, with Taipei City choosing to help Guohsing Village in Nantou County which had suffered the most serious damage.

Three ministers without portfolio were designated as operation commanders. I volunteered to serve as the Nantou commander, while Huang Ta-chou and Yang Shih-chien headed the Taichung County and Taichung City operations, respectively. A vice minister was also assigned to each village and town to serve as the local commander. With this chain of command in place, the rescue and reconstruction work proceeded quite smoothly.

I n July this year, I had the opportunity to see the reconstruction that was carried out in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. They adopted the same approach as us, with each central government agency and province helping one affected county, which worked well.

In retrospect, there was room for improvement after the 921 quake because chaos always ensues from a major disaster. For instance, victims would complain if relief goods were not evenly distributed. We learned from the 921 Earthquake that how to equitably distribute the relief supplies that flooded in from home and abroad has become an important aspect of disaster relief work.

In addition, there was the problem of making arrangements for the many foreign rescue teams that arrived soon after the quake. We dealt with the foreign teams quite well and they were all dispatched to disaster areas immediately after arrival, but detailed planning of such matters in the future is very important.

Minister of Economic Planning and Development PK Chiang (left) exchanges opinion with Chief of Chi Chi Township Lin Ming-chen (middle) about rebuilding the devastated township. (Nov. 29, 1999 CNA)

921 Earthquake survivors tell Legislative Yuan Vice President Chiang Pin-kung (second right), former minister of economic planning and development, the problems they have faced in the aftermath of the big quake. (March 7, 2004 CNA)

Japanese Rescue Worker Suggested Housing Survivors in Prefabs

The Japanese rescue team brought a great deal of experience to the rescue operations. Mr. Matoba, the Japanese commander who directed the rescue operations after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, passed on some of his experience to me the day after he arrived in Taiwan. What impressed me most was his suggestion to provide prefabricated housing units for displaced survivors. Japan agreed to give Taiwan some prefabs. However, he advised, aid workers should regularly visit those people housed in prefabs to ensure that they do not die from post-disaster trauma or as a result of loneliness.

A Doctors Without Borders team from Japan kept reminding me that there should be daily monitoring of the people housed in prefabs to check for any problems. However, the prefabs built by the government, the Tzu Chi Foundation and private firms for 921 Earthquake survivors were well made and equipped with cable TV, electric fans and washing machines, and the occupants did not develop the kinds of problems that Japan’s earthquake survivors housed in similar units had experienced. It later occurred to me that the difference was that Kobe is a big city and its citizens are usually quite lonely because they seldom interact with their neighbors, while the 921 Earthquake survivors were mostly from Taiwan’s rural areas and many neighbors had moved in together in the prefabs, therefore, there was less chance of them developing suicidal tendencies.

When Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara came to Taiwan, President Lee assigned me to him as a liaison person. The governor was surprised to see the progress we had made in the relief and reconstruction work and that we had built comfortable prefabs.

When I went to Japan later to study its emergency operations system, I learned that another key factor is how to rescue survivors quickly in all disaster areas and plan in detail for reconstruction.

Japan Has Rescue SOPs

Japan has established emergency operations and rescue and relief centers and has published standard operating procedures (SOPs) for each of them. The SOPs stipulate that an emergency operation center has to be activated at the central government level, and even at the local government level, when an earthquake above a certain magnitude occurs. Emergency personnel must arrive at the center in uniform within minutes after the quake, and at least one of the emergency center buildings must be quake-proof, in case the first designated building collapses in the temblor, according to the SOPs.

The SOPs also detail how the central and local governments should contact each other, and which agency should do what in case of road closures, telecommunications interruptions and other worst-case scenarios. The SOPs also include information on how best to use manpower, funds and relief supplies.

Although Japan has not set up an independent emergency management agency, it has a comprehensive emergency operations system that is designed to deal with earthquakes, typhoons, floods, plane crashes, fires and other disasters. The operations are headed by the prime minister, deputy prime minister or Ministry of Land, depending on the scale and seriousness of the disaster.

“Your rescue workers have to wear uniforms because people will feel more at ease when they see uniformed rescuers,” Mr. Matoba told me.

Based on Japan's experience, it is obvious that the issue is not whether we should establish an independent emergency management agency. Instead, what we really need is an SOP manual that specifies the chain of command and mandates regular training for reserve rescue personnel.

Accompanied by Minister PK Chiang (front), Governor Shintaro Ishihara (second front) of Tokyo, Japan inspects the damage caused by the 921 Earthquake to Shihkang Dam in Taichung County. (Nov. 13, 1999 CNA)

If we set up an independent organization, what would it do during those periods when there are no disasters? I think we should learn from the Japanese approach and work out standard operating procedures for dealing with emergencies. If we had SOP manuals at the time of the 921 Earthquake, the rescue efforts and distribution of relief supplies would not have been as chaotic as they were.

In most cases, rescue work can begin shortly after a major earthquake because we can try to restore transportation services and utilities once the weather is good, but continuous rain makes rescue efforts and the repair of flood-damaged roads and bridges more difficult.

Although the Taiwanese people lacked experience in dealing with a major quake like the one Sept. 21, 1999, but the government knew how to mobilize troops for rescue work. Under the direction of President Lee, Vice President Lien and Premier Siew, respectively, efforts were made to save survivors, resettle displaced victims and rebuild damaged infrastructure and houses.

The recent flooding on Aug. 8 also caused heavy damage in Taiwan. Dharma Drum Mountain got off the ground immediately to provide government agencies with basic supplies, including clean drinking water and hot food, for the storm victims.

Economic Growth Driven by Post-Quake Reconstruction

Although Taiwan was in the grips of the Asian financial crisis one year before the 921 Earthquake, it still maintained a moderate 4.6% economic growth in 1998 due to a NT$100 billion public investment plan. The Legislative Yuan later approved a budget of more than NT$60 billion for reconstruction projects over a period of five years, which also helped sustain economic growth. The Council for Economic Planning and Development had projected a growth rate of 5.8% in 1999, but Taiwan’s economy grew by 5.4% because many people cut back on spending after making donations to help quake victims.

The Taiwan government and Taiwanese businessmen on mainland China donated more than NT$6 billion to China after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. China completed its three-year reconstruction plan in just two years, and rebuilt more than 2,000 collapsed schools in only 18 months. This was really quick work, but it was mainly because the land was state-owned.

In Taiwan, the declaration of a state of emergency and enactment of reconstruction legislation helped expedite the reconstruction efforts after the 921 Earthquake. But rescue work after the Aug. 8 flooding was really difficult because of the bad weather.

Even though it is almost impossible to predict a natural disaster, we can still make a lot of preparations for the worst-case scenarios. We can plan for emergency management responses to different disasters, institute efficient chains of command and a reporting system, and plan for proper distribution of relief goods and funds and the use of donations from the private sector. If we have appropriate SOP manuals, the relevant government agencies could activate the operation system in an emergency, and report on the progress of rescue and relief operations. Disaster victims would feel more confident under such circumstances.

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