The Tainan Earthquake: who is to blame?

It’s a little over 12 hours since a 6.4 magnitude earthquake rattled the southern area of Taiwan and wreaked destruction on the City of Tainan: the oldest city in Taiwan. It’s a relatively short time for those of us observing from afar, even just a few miles away, where buildings stand intact and the people are unfazed. Business goes on as usual as people prepare for the new year. But for people trapped in the rubble, and rescue workers straining their bodies beyond the limits of normal endurance, the time must seem interminable. For the hundreds of families who have been made homeless it means no new year’s celebration for them. For people in the wild east it’s like your house burning down on Christmas Eve (in the wild west).

In Tainan, Taiwan’s traditional, and ‘unofficial capital city’, nine buildings have collapsed and five have tilted to a dangerous angle. Water and gas mains have burst, leaving thousands of homes without water, and creating potential dangers. At the time of writing, the High Speed Rail has reopened as far as Chiayi, after being closed from Taichung south to the city of Kaohsiung. The HSR is an essential link between Taiwan’s northernmost city, the capital Taipei, and it’s southernmost and second largest city Kaohsiung.

Ma ying-jieou visits earthquake victims in Tainan after the February 6 2016 earthquake
President of the Republic of China visits earthquake victims in Tainan January 6, 2016. Chinese rulers throughout history have often been blamed for, and overthrown after natural disasters such as earthquakes and famines. Attempts to blame Ma for this earthquake have been ridiculed due to the fact that he has already been ousted at the ballot box and is merely care-taking the position until Tsai Ying-wen takes over May 20, 2016.

Today saw the largest exodus of people for the year. Those of us lucky enough to be able to take time off before the close of business Friday, took off on Thursday to beat the crowds, who from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, booked every train, plane, and automobile to get home for Chinese New Year’s Eve, tomorrow, Sunday.

In Taidong, we are just 99 kilometers from Tainan as the crow flies, but due to the impassible mountain barrier between us, travel distance by road or rail makes it almost 300 kilometers away, and around four hours travel time. The epicenter of the quake was between us, but areas equidistant with Tainan, and even closer to the center were left completely unscathed.

Despite Taiwan’s proximity to China, the Celestial Empire had no interest in the island until the Dutch settled there, and founded Fort Zeelandia under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company in the early 1600s. At the time it was founded, Fort Zeelandia was situated on a large sandbank. There was no freshwater there and water had to be brought from ‘the mainland’ of Taiwan. If you visit today, you will see that the sea is 2 kilometers to the west, and Fort Zeelandia (Anping) today is surrounded by an urban landscape built on what was sea and sandbars only 400 years ago. The whole area of Tainan consists of sedimentary deposits made by successive typhoons over thousands of years, that have washed rocks and silt down from mountains still rising from the sea.

A histrorical map of Tainan showing Anping Fort (Fort Zeeland)
A historic map of Tainan showing Anping (Fort Zeeland) at the time it was located on an island. The main area damaged by the earthquake is circled. During the Ming dynasty it was a lake.

Taiwan is an active geological location. Formed on the Pacific rim on the edge of tectonic plates. What it lacks in volcanoes (there are a couple of dormant ones), it makes up for in tectonic activity. I have seen the evidence of mountains rising when I visited areas affected by the earthquake of September 21, 1999 in Taichung and Nantou. This most recent earthquake has also lifted land.

Typhoons will continue to battle the mountains year after year, washing sediments to the west, east and south. The tectonic activity keeps the mountains sharp, unlike the worn down versions of the ancient continent where I grew up, where the mountains wore down to stumps until the rain stopped falling. It took 4 000 000 000 (4 billion) years. Generations of people will come and go. Political regimes will change: but always the forces of nature will rule.

Madonna is seen at her concert in Taipei January 5, 2016 draped in the flag of the Republic of China
Only a few hours before the earthquake, Madonna draped herself in the flag of the Republic of China and said things like ‘Taiwan I love you’. Another sin she committed was breaking curfew. Her concert started late and finished after midnight. As 10, 000 fans spilled into the streets, residents were disturbed by the noise and commotion and complained to municipal authorities and the EPA.

In Taiwan, there are some political fanatics in the ‘green’ camp that blamed the earthquake on heaven’s dissatisfaction with the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou. Others in the ‘blue’ camp blamed the election of the incoming President Tsai Ing-wen. A few imaginative souls blamed the foreign diva Madonna, who draped herself in the flag of the Republic of China only hours before the earthquake happened during the grand finale of the Taiwan leg of her Rebel-Heart concert tour.

While this kind of superstitious thinking rules in the wild east, we are not immune from this kind of ignorance in the wild west. One religious nutbag (and ‘friend of the family’) wrote on my Facebook page:

“The Creator is really starting to shake things up The spiritual war is hotting up Storm and Tempest are tools He uses in Judgement! Yes!”

For some, a tragic event is an act of God, rendered upon the sinners. And there but for the grace of God go I.

Personally I’d rather live among the heathen. I find their superstitions less irritating than religion.

There were heathens among us in Tainan who constructed buildings using substandard materials, and filled load-bearing pillars with all manner of detritus to save on the cost of concrete and steel. If any blame can be put on politicians, it’s the lack of action taken against this kind of criminal: the kind that tends to be so close to the politicians themselves. These are the same criminals who provided suitcases of cash to Ma Ying-jeou’s predecessor in return for support for development projects, and they built these shoddy buildings before that guy was ever elected, so it’s not a case of green vs. blue; they both take the cash and turn a blind eye. After the same problem was discovered 17 years ago after the 921 earthquake, why weren’t the buildings that collapsed today inspected and condemned? And what about all the other crappily-built buildings in Taiwan, who’s facades, whether honestly ugly, or dishonestly prettified, hide pillars of clay built on foundations of sand?

Taidong badlands are the edge of the Philippine and Eurasian continental plates. Beinan River in the foreground
The edge of the Philippine-Eurasian continental plate just outside of Taidong (Taitung). Photographed two days after the earthquake. The subduction of the Philippine plate causes Taiwan’s mountains to rise at an average 5 millimeters per year.

What chance does a country have when people blame political parties, or the gods, or bad luck for their problems. Take a look around at the world you live in. Try to understand it. And build your lives, and your house accordingly.

2 thoughts on “The Tainan Earthquake: who is to blame?

  • February 15, 2016 at 7:23 am

    Hi Phillip…

    It’s been a very long time. How have you been? I was going through some articles when I felt I wished I could talk to someone as intellectually stimulating as you. I’ve got some ideas in mind and your feedback on them would make a world of difference.

    Any way I could easily contact you?

  • February 14, 2016 at 9:52 pm

    Phillip … How have you been? As I was reading some old works, I began to lament not having you to participate in intellectual discussions. I have some thoughts and wonder if you could offer your suggestions.


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