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Interview with Key Contributors

Interview with Vice President Vincent Siew


All-day Inspection of Disaster Areas, No Time to Eat

I had fallen asleep just before the 921 Earthquake occurred, and I felt it very strongly in my apartment on the 18th floor. Knowing such a big quake would cause heavy damage, I made contact with then-Secretary General Hsieh Shen-san of the Executive Yuan, Interior Minister Huang Chu-wen and Director-General Chen Chien-jen of the Government Information Office, after I had made it down the stairs to the ground floor.

We met at the Rescue Command Center at the National Fire Agency, Ministry of the Interior, shortly after 2 a.m. to discuss what actions would be needed. I asked them to find out where the quake was centered, its magnitude, the damage it had caused and the power supply situation.

When the Central Weather Bureau reported that the epicenter of the quake was in the Nantou area, I contacted Governor of Taiwan Province Chao Shou-po immediately and he said he would report back on the disaster situation. Nantou County Magistrate Peng Bai-hsien reported later that the epicenter was near Chi Chi Township and that the quake seemed to have caused heavy damage in Nantou. I told him we would start the rescue and relief work as soon as possible in the areas that were hardest hit.

Premier Vincent Siew (second left) inspects the rescue work at the site of collapsed Dongxing Building in Taipei City. (Sept. 25, 1999 CNA)

We were later informed by the military that the quake had caused serious damage in some parts of Taichung County, and that Taichung City, Yunlin County and Chiayi County were also affected. I called President Lee Teng-hui to report on the situation and asked for a Ministry of National Defense helicopter to transport me quickly to the disaster areas. By that time, President Lee had already received similar reports from other sources.

I arrived at the Nantou City Stadium shortly after 7 a.m. and was shocked to see that there were many quake survivors at the stadium, which was being used as a shelter and an emergency relief center. I told Magistrate Peng to give priority to rescue and relief and to take good care of the injured, and I gave the assurance that the central government would provide full financial support. Then we saw many houses along several streets in Nantou City had collapsed or tilted on their foundations.

After visiting some hospitalized survivors, I asked Minister of Health Chan Chi-shean to remain there in Nantou and direct the mobilization of emergency medical care services.

Upon learning that the quake had caused heavy casualties and the collapse of a bridge in Chungliao Village, I reported immediately to President Lee and was told that he was leaving Taipei for Puli and Chi Chi and that Vice President Lien Chan was heading for Taichung County. I therefore went to Chungliao.

Our helicopter could hardly land anywhere in the devastated Chungliao area because the main roads and school sports fields had all been destroyed in the quake. When we saw that most houses and buildings there had either collapsed or keeled over, we realized that the situation was worse than we had first thought.

We were very touched to learn that many volunteers in uniform from Tzu Chi Foundation, Fo Guang Shan Monastery, Dharma Drum Mountain and Christian and Catholic churches were already helping survivors in Chungliao and other disaster areas, despite the fact that many bridges and roads there had been damaged.

Premier Vincent Siew (second left) inspects the rescue work at the site of collapsed Dongxing Building in Taipei City. (Sept. 25, 1999 CNA)

Premier Vincent Siew inpsects the rescue work at the site of the collapsed Dongxing Building in Taipei, comforts the affected families and prays with rescue volunteers for the safety of all and the early reconstruction of destroyed homes. (Sept. 25, 1999 CNA)

We inspected Yunlin and Chiayi counties before returning to Taipei after 4 p.m. Based on the inspections of the day, I drafted nine emergency measures, including the establishment of emergency rescue and relief task forces at central and local government levels, and instructed the Central Weather Bureau to continue its close monitoring of the quake situation and brief us when necessary. In light of the heavy casualties, it was also necessary to make arrangements for funerals and coffins, as well as for medical care.

We called a meeting that night after President Lee and Vice President Lien returned to Taipei. Following the Executive Yuan briefing, a 15-point emergency rescue and relief plan was formulated. Throughout that entire day, I had not eaten and had only drunk some water because we were racing against time, using every second to deal with the disaster and try to prevent further damage.

Adequate Information Key to Successful Rescue and Relief Work

In order to carry out successful rescue and relief work, it is important to have access to several sources of information. The first source is the military, because our troops are deployed in many counties and cities. The second is the police, since they have stations everywhere and can obtain information at all times. The third is local governments, especially village and township offices, because they maintain close contact with their neighborhoods. And the Rescue Command Center reported to us after collecting information from different sources.

Our rescue, relief, resettlement and reconstruction efforts were quite efficient because we dealt with each disaster village and township as a basic unit so that their specific requirements could be met rapidly. In this way, we were able to more effectively distribute medical resources and relief supplies donated by people from home and abroad.

As Premier, I Could Only Say ‘Please Do Your Best’

Issuing directions from the top down is aimed at ensuring the best integration and distribution of resources, but resettlement has to be done from the bottom up, starting with the survivors who need to be rehabilitated. Whether the action comes from the top down or bottom up, the aim is for survivors to really feel that the government and society are concerned and would take good care of them. We did whatever was necessary, in the quickest time and most efficient way.

Although Taiwan was frequently struck by natural disasters, the once-in-a-century major quake posed a great challenge to us, since we had no precedent to follow. Volunteers from central government agencies had to make quick judgments in dealing with specific situations as they arose, because there was no time to waste or anyone to turn to for directives in the so-called “Golden 72 hours” after the disaster.

As premier at the time, I could only urge everyone, “Please do your best.” When the Department of Health mobilized the medical sector, each major hospital in Taiwan took charge of one disaster area. Under that arrangement, the injured survivors all received good treatment with very little government financial assistance, and because of the well-executed public health response, there were no epidemic outbreaks in the chaotic disaster areas.

Then we began the process of resettling displaced quake survivors. The government had to adopt appropriate legal, financial and other measures to facilitate smooth implementation of the reconstruction work. After one week of rescue, relief and resettlement efforts, the Executive Yuan set up the 921 Earthquake Post-Disaster Recover Commission and designated Vice Premier Liu Chao-shiuan as its commander.

Vice President Lien Chan (sitting in front) and Premier Vincent Siew are perturbed when listening to disaster report on the phone at the Rescue Command Center, Ministry of the Interior. (Sept.21, 1999 CNA)

In formulating the reconstruction plan, we had two major considerations. First, it had to have a legal basis, so the commission drafted a reconstruction statute -- a special law to circumvent the restraints of the existing law at the time and to achieve speedy action. Second, we had to draw up a budget for the reconstruction work. In response to the serious flooding caused by Typhoon Morakot on Aug. 8, the government followed the same procedure in its rescue, relief, resettlement and reconstruction efforts.

Basically, reconstruction means rebuilding destroyed urban or rural areas, but we made an important decision that the damaged houses and buildings in areas vulnerable to future earthquakes would have to be rebuilt in safer locations and that the government would compensate the affected residents through an urban renovation and land consolidation program. Since not that many residents were affected and those who had to be resettled did not want to live in areas vulnerable to quakes, the reconstruction work proceeded quite smoothly with other types of assistance from government.

Russian Aid Workers Granted Visas upon Arrival

Upon learning that there were several offers of foreign assistance, I said they would be very welcome. The Japanese government's initial response to the 1995 Kobe Earthquake was slow and its rescue and relief work was chaotic, but it did a great reconstruction job. Because of their experience in the Kobe Earthquake, the Japanese rescue groups were willing to help Taiwan when the 921 Earthquake struck. We very much appreciated their assistance and learned valuable lessons from their quick rescue actions in Taiwan.

South Korea, the U.S., Russia and many other countries also sent rescue teams. Members of the Russian rescue team were granted visas upon arrival in Taiwan. The foreign aid effort was an indication that Taiwan was not isolated from the international community and that other countries were willing to offer assistance when needed.

We Must Not Work Against Mother Nature

Although people now say we did quite well in our response to the 921 Earthquake, we actually had to learn during the process of dealing with the catastrophe, and our rescue and relief efforts were quite often criticized back then.

Looking at the lessons from that disaster, I think there is still room for improvement. First, we need a special law on natural disaster prevention. Second, the system and organization of government agencies in charge of rescue and relief need to be reinforced. Third, rescue and relief work has to be coordinated and carried out by the central government, with full cooperation from local governments and the private sector.

Premier Siew (center) visits injured quake survivors in the China Medical University Hospital. (Sept. 22, 1999 CNA)

In addition, we have to hold regular drills to ensure that our disaster prevention systems would be effective when put into practice. Scientific evidence indicates that there will be more extreme weather conditions and more serious natural disasters as a result of worsening global warming. Therefore, we must have a sense of crisis and follow the example of Japan, holding regular drills to improve our disaster preparedness.

Another fundamental concept we have to bear in mind is not to believe that man, with determination, can conquer Mother Nature by working against her. If people build houses in locations that are unsuitable for residential development, others in the society will suffer injury or even death if those houses are damaged in a disaster. So we have to formulate a comprehensive land planning law and enforce it strictly.

The 921 Earthquake and the horrible flooding in August of 2009 have taught us that we should not work against Nature and overdevelop, even though there is limited arable land in Taiwan. Otherwise, we would suffer greatly and pay a huge price if and when Nature fights back violently.

One of my musings after the 921 Earthquake was that we should be thankful, in light of the disaster toll we saw everywhere. According to the late Buddhist Master Sheng Yen, “the victims are the great Buddha who died to suffer for our sins, and the survivors are the little Buddha who should be grateful to the great Buddha; we who are living now should be grateful for everything. That's my greatest thought today.”

I also believe we should always show concern for and share more with others so that we can feel more gratified, and we should not think only of ourselves and do everything just for ourselves. Man lives only for a few decades, and it tantamount to divine punishment for one to lose everything in such a catastrophe as the 921 Earthquake. So we should engage in soul-searching and always repent over the bad things we did.

There will be greater harmony in the society if everyone concentrates on being grateful, rather than fighting for personal gain and criticizing others. If everyone develops a greater sense of tolerance, Taiwan will be able to bring its strength and resilience into full play.

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