VOLUME 13, NO. 2 NOVEMBER 2000
Editor's Note In October 1999, Fred Casselius '01, Matthew Dahmer '01 and Matthew Lewis '01, traveled to Taipei to complete WPI's first Interactive Qualifying Project in Taiwan. They worked at National Taiwan University (NTU) and lived at Tatung Institute of Technology. For their IQP they selected an earthquake study because the area is one of the most seismically active regions in the world. In an ironic twist of fate, the Chi Chi Earthquake (the most powerful in Taiwan's history) hit on Sept. 21, shortly before the team arrived. This is their story in their own words.
Taiwan has a population of 22 million Asians; we were three Caucasian Americans half a world away from where we grew up. We learned to survive by trial and error. Public transportation was the first thing we had to learn to handle on our own. One night it took us over three hours to make what should have been a 30-minute trip home. Lost in Taipei, walking the streets with a map and confused looks, we would have been out all night if not for a friendly native who pulled over on his scooter and pointed us to the train station.
Eating was also an adventure. Nothing was familiar and everything looked scary to our unaccustomed eyes. Restaurants were always a challenge because the menus were in Chinese, making a lifetime of experience with a 26-letter alphabet completely useless. Ordering "takeout" Chinese food in America didn't prepare us for "real" Chinese food. We'd ask what we were eating but the response was always, "It's edible" or "It's chicken." So we changed our question to "Is it edible chicken?" After adopting this philosophy, we ate some interesting foods. Out of the ocean and into our bellies went sea slugs, whole dried fish mixed with peanuts, eel, blowfish, octopus and other forms of "edible chicken." From the land, we enjoyed cow stomach, pigskin, and other things (of which we remain ignorant). But everything was edible.
Life in Taiwan was quite different from the academic atmosphere we were used to. In Taipei we were members of a small minority, noticed every time we stepped outside our room. As we walked down the street, people would smile, wave and greet us. We stuck out like sore thumbs. In time, we got used to that; after a while the sight of other Americans began to strike us as odd.
Our IQP focused on the socioeconomic impact of the 7.6-magnitude Chi-Chi earthquake, which killed more than 2,400 people and injured more than 10,700 others. Thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed. Huge landslides were triggered and large sections of the infrastructure ruined -- isolating several mountain villages and resulting in three weeks of power rationing in the northern half of the island. In addition to exploring the economic, political and social effects of the disaster, we compared the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency's response to the 1994 Northridge, Calif., earthquake to the response of the Taiwanese government to this quake.
As part of our project, we traveled to many of the areas that were hit hardest by the quake. It was a very emotional four-day trip -- not only because of what we felt, but also because of what we saw. Some people walked by destroyed buildings with their faces turned away, as if trying to avoid the memories and thoughts that destruction brought to mind. Others came to see the damage, viewing the quake as a national event that should be understood by all. One man even earned money selling books of photographs of the destruction.
We concluded that every aspect of earthquake mitigation and recovery should be analyzed by the government to determine what should be repeated in a future disaster and what should be changed. In our report we suggested reforming the nation's policies to include using government aid as a supplement to private relief assistance and reducing aid for preventable disasters; eliminating corruption in the building code industry, enforcing codes more strictly, and "punishing violators; establishing a system specifically designed to deal with national disasters; and asking politicians to put aside their differences to work together for the benefit of the people.
This earthquake affected Taiwan in many ways. In the end it will not be how politicians changed their slogans or how the National Taiwan dollar stood up against the U.S. dollar that will dictate how the country changes in response to the earthquake. People are the building blocks of a society and any change must start and end with them.
The Chi-Chi earthquake was the largest disaster to hit Taiwan in the 20th century, but for all the economic loss and all the squabbling over political power, what will be remembered is who lost a father, a daughter, a friend. These are the true and lasting effects of the earthquake. Buildings can be rebuilt, new jobs can be found, political power can be gathered, and even the memory of terror can be faced, but nothing will change the fact that more than 2,400 people died. Each one had a family and each had friends. And it is that loss that will truly change Taiwan.
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