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Interview with Key Contributors

Interview with President Ma Ying-jeou, Taipei mayor at the time of 921 Earthquake

921大地震時擔任台北市長的馬英九總統指出,強震過後還有「黃金72小時」搶救受害者,台北市也因震災經驗建立了縣市合作模式;但有鑑於八八水災的慘痛教訓 – 颱風來襲時連72秒救災時間都沒有,政府已將防淹水、防土石流列為未來最重要的工作,努力方向則是「超前部署、預置兵力、隨時防救」。

It Seemed People Were Vaporized When Disaster Occurred

I was at home reading some official documents when the Earth shook violently at 1:27 a.m. on Sept. 21, 1999. Because the temblor lasted for many seconds and the movement was from side to side as well as up and down, I judged that it was a very strong quake. I made contact with Taipei City Fire Department the minute the quake stopped and was told that an apartment building on Bade Road had collapsed. I later heard that a building at Jingmei Girls High School had also collapsed, some empty houses had been destroyed and there were some scattered minor incidents. I went to Bade Road immediately, and Vice Mayor Ou Chin-der arrived there by bicycle, to get the rescue efforts started.

We later found out that a total of 74 residents had been killed and 13 others were missing. Unless you saw it with your own eyes, it would be hard to imagine that people seemed to have vaporized when the disaster occurred. Knowing that the rescue work would be extremely difficult, rescue workers had started spraying water on the collapsed building even before the countdown to the “Golden 72 hours.” Because we knew fire had caused more casualties than quake itself in the 1995 Kobe earthquake, we asked the gas companies to check for broken gas lines as soon as possible and cut off natural gas supply to prevent possible fire damage.

Thanks to Grand Hyatt Taipei, many quake survivors from the collapsed Bade Road building were given accommodation for one month, which was an unprecedented offer by any five-star hotel throughout the world. With Asia World (now Sunworld Dynasty Taipei Hotel) and other big hotels accommodating other victims, only a few displaced survivors in Taipei were without shelter.

In the following 10 days, I nervously went to the rescue command post at Taipei Songshan Police District everyday to check on the progress of the rescue efforts at the site of the collapsed building. The police had cordoned off the whole area and kept President Lee Teng-hui, Vice President Lien Chan, Premier Vincent Siew and even displaced survivors away from the site so as not to impede the rescue work there.

The disaster areas in Taipei were cleared in 10 days and Vice Mayor Ou went to join the rescue work in Guoshing Township, Nantou County, while I took part in rescue efforts in central Taiwan in early October. According to estimates at the time, the death toll had reached 2,400 and more than 100,000 had been displaced. Thus, Taipei City Government decided to use its more than NT$600 million in donations to help quake victims in central Taiwan.

The 12-storey Donxing Apartment Building on Bade Road Section 4 collapsed when the 921 Earthquake occurred. Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou visited the scene shortly after learning of the tragedy. The quake registered 7.3 on the Richter scale. (By CNA Sept. 21, 1999)

Buses Used As Makeshift Shelter for Displaced Survivors

We converted 20 buses, which were scheduled to be discarded but were still usable, into makeshift shelters by removing the seats to house displaced survivors in central Taiwan. We also sent packages containing rice, cooking oil, salt and other necessities to the survivors. Later, we made arrangements for each of Taipei's administrative districts to adopt an affected central Taiwan township, after city government agency heads had evaluated the assistance needs there. In this way, we were able to extend help to the victims while training Taipei Government workers to prepare for other such emergencies.

We found out in the process that a course called “Civil Administration in a War Zone,” which was taught in military training at high schools and universities, had proved useful in disaster areas. For instance, census taking, community organization, school construction and road repairs were all necessary in the aftermath of the big quake.

With township administration offices being destroyed, Ministry of the Interior officials accessed the offices' computerized database to determine which households should receive “sympathy subsidies.” We then used the money from our fundraising to provide financial assistance to affected townships, strictly adhering to government budget regulations and the professional advice of the fund committee that included lawyers and accountants. Over a six-month period, we sent some 1,000 city officials, on a rotational basis, to assist affected townships in central Taiwan.

Subsequently, a pattern of mutual assistance developed between Taipei City and other local governments. In the eight years that I was city mayor, Taipei provided assistance to 13 counties and cities. When other natural disasters occurred in Taipei, other counties and cities also extended their help to the capital city. For instance, two dozens of elderly men and women came from Chongliao Tonwship in Nantou County, which was heavily damaged in the 921 Earthquake, to help clean up Taipei streets after Typhoon Nari struck northern Taiwan in 2001. Although they provided only limited help, we were deeply touched by their sincerity and devotion. It is really difficult to forget that feeling of blood being thicker than water.

I Cried When the Elder Sun Brother Was Rescued After Five Days

As Taipei mayor, what had impressed me most was that one of the Sun brothers had survived under the rubble for 5 days after the 921 Earthquake. Vice Mayor Ou had been making frequent inspections at the site of the destroyed Dongxing Building despite the danger of further collapse at any time. On the fifth day after the disaster, he asked a man who had suddenly walked out of the rubble why he was not wearing a uniform as was required of all rescue workers. It was later discovered that the man was the elder of the two Sun brothers, who had been buried under rubble, and was the last survivor to be rescued from the collapsed building. Upon learning the good news, I embraced Chen Jeaw-mei, then commissioner of the Taipei Department of Social Welfare, and shed tears. But when the rubble was cleared after another five days, we did not find any of the other 13 missing residents.

It was a miracle that the elder Sun brother had survived for days after his younger brother had been rescued. While he was being examined at a nearby first-aid station, he told rescuers that he was right beside a refrigerator when the 921 Earthquake occurred and he was trapped in the small space under the refrigerator which had propped up the rubble of the collapsed building. After surviving the first three days on a bottle of water that was in the fridge, he said, he prayed to Guanyin for help and it rained shortly afterward. It was not very clean water, but it sustained him for two more days before he was able to crawl out of rubble, he said. I told him we had been spraying the collapsed building with water to prevent possible fires and it had not rained during that time.

During a visit to disaster areas in Guoshing and Chongliau townships, Nantou County, I was deeply touched when several local residents told me that it was fortunate the epicenter was not in the capital city of Taipei, as the death toll would have been in the tens of thousands.

I realized after the 921 Earthquake that disaster prevention is more important than rescue and relief. Although it is still impossible to predict earthquakes, we can make preparations to minimize the damage. So after the big quake, we gave an order that all ongoing public construction projects in Taipei had to be subject to stricter safety inspections and tests. Because of that requirement, construction of the Xinyi Expressway was delayed for almost two years, but I think it was a worth the while because only five persons died at the Taipei 101 construction site when the city was rocked by a major quake at the end of March 2002. And the tragedy occurred because the tower crane was not firmly anchored.

Mayor Ma (right second) visited the collapsed building in Taipei Jingmei Girls High School and instructed Commissioner Lee Hung-jie (right) to extended all necessary assistance. (By CNA Oct. 2, 1999)

Another lesson we learned from the 921 Earthquake is that when a quake strikes, you have to squat down next to a sturdy desk or refrigerator -- just like Mr. Sun did -- instead of hiding under a desk as we had been told previously, because we could be crushed under the desks. But if possible, it is better to run to an open outdoor space.

We also realized after the 921 quake that life is really unpredictable, so we should try our best to help each other when necessary. Because we cannot count on the central government for everything, I encouraged cooperation between Taipei and other cities and counties. The areas of cooperation included sharing incinerators with Keelung City and signing an administrative agreement with Taipei County for seven departments to collaborate on 96 matters.

We Don't Have 72 Seconds for Rescue When a Typhoon Strikes

Earthquakes and typhoons are two different types of natural disasters. Rescue efforts could begin immediately after an earthquake, but in the case of Typhoon Morakot, heavy rain continued to fall for days after the storm left southern Taiwan at about 5 a.m. on Aug. 9, 2009. On the third day, after 2,965mm of rainfall, the Alishan Visitor's Center which is located 2,000 meters above sea level, was unprecedentedly swamped by two meters of water.

Since many of the disaster areas were in mountainous districts, bad weather conditions impeded rescue efforts. But the victims and their relatives who complained about the government's slow response did not realize that bad weather had prevented rescue planes from taking off. When weather conditions improved on the sixth day, 1,600 survivors were rescued, more than the total 1,500 who were rescued in the previous five rainy days.

Based on that experience, we have laid out some procedures for government rescue efforts in the future: First, advance deployment; and second, standby troops. Since typhoons can be forecasted, the troops, together with amphibious vehicles, rubber dinghies and other related equipment, must be deployed in possible disaster areas 36 hours before a typhoon’s estimated strike so that rescue efforts can begin swiftly and smoothly.

Accompanied by Mayor Ma (left third), President Lee Teng-hui inspected rescue efforts at the site of collapsed Dongxing Apartment Building. (By CNA Sept. 28, 1999)

The evacuation of 3,000 residents from possible disaster areas before Typhoon Morakot struck was the reason why there were no mudslide casualties in Nantou County. However, a few people died or were reported missing when bridges collapsed in Nantou. In order to prevent such tragic accidents in the future, the Directorate General of Highways under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications is now sending workers to monitor rivers upstream from bridges, instead of monitoring the water level under bridges, and would decide whether a bridge should be closed to traffic during a storm.

Since man cannot fight Nature, the best response to a possible natural disaster is evacuation. The Chinese saying that “To run away is the best among all the possible schemes” is exactly the right thinking. A total of 7,863 residents, including 6,000 in southern Taiwan, were evacuated from possible disaster areas ahead of Typhoon Parma in October this year, which was an indication that the Aug. 8 flooding scared people into changing their attitude to disaster prevention.

Another big difference between the 921 Earthquake and the Aug. 8 flooding is that 21 countries sent 38 rescue teams to Taiwan after the big quake, but no foreign rescue teams came after the recent flooding, although 85 countries expressed sympathy over Taiwan's losses or offered material assistance. The United States sent helicopters to join the rescue efforts, but they arrived a few days after the disaster occurred. The foreign response was based on the fact that they could not send rescue teams to areas where it was impossible to operate.

After a major quake, rescuers have the “Golden 72 hours” to try to save victims. But when people are buried under s mudslide during a storm, we don't have even 72 seconds to rescue them. The government was criticized by the media as having responded slowly after Typhoon Morakot, but people now understand, based on the accounts of survivors and rescue workers, that there is no “Golden 72 hours” after a typhoon or mudslide.

For instance, after being contacted by the central government on the evening of Aug. 7, the deputy magistrate of Kaohsiung County called the head of Jiashian Township who, in turn, called Xiaolin Village Chief Liu. The village chief reported during the sixth call that his village was flooded but not so badly that evacuation was necessary. At around 6:40 a.m. on Aug. 6, the village was buried by a massive mudslide. The fact that the bodies of several Xiaolin residents were later found as far away as Chishan Township is an indication that there is no way to predict such a disaster. The only way to prevent such tragedy from occurring again is to relocate people in villages vulnerable to mudslides. Arrangements had been made for Xiaolin villagers to be relocated in Xiaolin Primary School, but the school was also buried by mudslides, and the villagers were not moved to another location that was under consideration. That is why we had to strictly enforce the evacuation order when Typhoon Parma was approaching Taiwan.

Taiwan is now being divided into five zones in which civil administration workers involved in transportation and communications system, water resources, power supply, forestry and soil and water conservation will become members of a disaster prevention team to work in close cooperation with the military in an emergency. In addition to streamlining rescue efforts, the government's goal is to deploy troops and equipment in advance in order to prevent disasters. I just told the chief of the General Staff that in disaster prevention, the military may use tour buses to evacuate people who are in danger and transport them more comfortably to military barracks, once bridges and roads on the route have not been destroyed. At the time of Typhoon Parma, we conducted a full drill in Yilan County, evacuating more than 540 residents and there were no casualties.

The fact is that most natural disasters cannot be prevented. Therefore, what we have to do is try our best to mitigate their toll. The Council of Agriculture's Soil and Water Conservation Bureau has trained 1,300 disaster prevention volunteers throughout Taiwan and they, along with village chiefs andpolice officers, helped to evacuate 9,100 residents and prevented 1,046 casualties during Typhoon Morakot. When I presented citations to them on Oct. 21, I praised their contribution as tantamount to giving the rescued people a new lease on life. But it is unfortunate that two volunteers in the ill-fated Xiaolin Village lost their lives at the last minute in the line of duty. We have asked Kaohsiung County Government to allow people to honor the memory of the volunteers at the Martyrs Shrine there.

In order to further improve our disaster prevention system, the central government plans to set up a “nerve center” disaster prevention office under the Executive Yuan. All of its members will report for work at the Central Disaster Reaction Center whenever a catastrophe occurs, and they will work on education, training and drills at other times. The government has been training city and county officials in preparation for disaster prevention and rescue and relief work, instilling in them the concept that leaders of neighborhood, in household groupings of about 10, must be mobilized so that neighbors can help each other in an emergency. We expect local governments to carry out the duties of disaster prevention in the future, while the central government would be responsible for providing necessary assistance and support.

Preventing Floods and Mudslides Our Most Important Task

Climate change results mainly from global warming. Temperatures in the northern Pacific rose by an average 0.5 degrees Celsius in the 20th century, causing higher humidity and stronger typhoons that are 75 percent more destructive. The second warning is that temperatures in the Taiwan area have risen by an average 1.2 degrees – 62 percent higher than the global average -- in the last century. According to Taiwan's weather data, the rainfall brought by typhoons had increased from 1,900mm 20years ago to 2,965mm in August 2009. This data and the disasters in recent years tell us that even though the number of typhoons might not increase in the future, they will cause greater damages, and torrential rain will be more dangerous to Taiwan than typhoons themselves. Therefore, finding ways of preventing floods and mudslides is now our most important task.
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