Taiwan’s Eastern Coast Rocked by Earthquakes
In the late hours of Tuesday, February 6, an earthquake measured 6.4 on the moment magnitude scale struck eastern Taiwan, killing over a dozen people. The earthquake was centered about 17 kilometers (11 miles) northeast of the eastern Taiwanese city of Hualien.
Taiwan lies at the juncture of the Philippine Sea and Eurasia tectonic plates, making it subject to regular earthquakes on a daily basis. Taiwan’s last major earthquake struck the south of the island in February 2016, killing 116 people while the massive Chi Chi earthquake of September 1999 killed over 2,400. The Feb. 6, 2018 earthquake was the largest in a chain of noticeable earthquakes that began on Feb. 3, with a sizable magnitude 5.8 (Richter) earthquake plus ten aftershocks striking 23.6 kilometers (15 miles) northeast of Hualien on Feb. 4.
At 11:50 PM on Feb. 6, buildings in Hualien began to shake, and residents started racing outside or scrambling for cover. By the end of the earthquake, mere seconds later, at least four separate buildings had partially collapsed, which caused at least 225 injuries and at least four deaths.
People in Hualien and Yilan counties, both on the east coast, reported an intensity level of 7 (the highest) on Taiwan’s 7-step earthquake intensity scale; Hehuanshan, in central Taiwan, reported an intensity of 5. Residents of Taipei, over 160 kilometers (100 miles) away from the epicenter, reported an intensity level of 3.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen tweeted within hours that armed forces and government agencies were responding to the quake while Taiwan’s National Fire Agency reported that two bridges in the area had been closed. Rescue workers and first responders combing through the rubble had to contend with powerful aftershocks, including a temblor measuring 5.7 on the moment magnitude scale that struck late on Feb. 7 and a magnitude 4.8 (Richter) tremor that struck in the morning of Feb. 8.
Taiwan’s Central Weather Bureau, which monitors meteorological and seismic activity for the island, initially predicted on Feb. 7 that aftershocks would diminish in number and size.
However, the acting director for the Bureau’s Seismology Center told reporters on Feb. 7 that the “flurry of aftershocks seen before and after” the deadly Feb. 6 quake was “unprecedented and not a normal release of energy,” and could not rule out the possibility that the magnitude 6.4 quake was a “foreshock of an even bigger earthquake.”
With Hualien continuing to feel aftershocks, many residents in the afflicted area slept in temporary shelters outside of their homes out of fear of another large quake causing more buildings to collapse.
Aid from Japan and Singapore reached the island by Feb. 9 as Taipei welcomed a Japanese rescue team armed with specialized heat-sensing equipment and humanitarian aid worth 135,000 US dollars airlifted from Singapore.
While Beijing offered to send workers and supplies, a Presidential Office spokesman stated on Feb. 8 that “Taiwan is an extremely developed country and has no shortage of relief workers and supplies, and though many countries around the world have offered assistance and personnel, we at this time are politely declining their offers.” The spokesman noted that the team of Japanese specialists was accepted because the team possesses body-heat detection equipment Taiwanese rescue crews do not have.
Rescue efforts were ended on Feb. 11, with the updated casualty count standing at 17 dead and over 280 injured. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that at least 31 foreign nationals were affected by the Hualien quake, including fatalities from tourists visiting from Mainland China and a Filipino caregiver working in Hualien at the time of the quake. The Ministry also extended its “sincere gratitude” to 63 countries and the four international organizations that expressed concern and condolences to victims of the quake, thanking the “genuine friendship from the international community.”
While Hualien continues to experience aftershocks, with two magnitude 4.0 (Richter) tremors striking on Feb. 14, recent opinion polling suggests that a sizable majority of the Taiwanese public approves of the government’s handling of the disaster. Taiwan’s President Tsai has toured Hualien twice, visiting emergency response centers with Premier Lai Ching-te on Feb. 7 and eating dinner with displaced residents on Feb. 9. Vice President Chen Chien-jen met with victims of the quake on Feb. 16 on behalf of President Tsai to express her concerns for the affected on the first day of the Lunar New Year.