Taipei: Taiwan has built itself a reputation for cutting edge technology, efficient public transport and safe streets. But an earthquake has again highlighted the well-off island’s history of shoddy construction and questionable safety standards.
It has become a familiar sight. A quake strikes Taiwan, rattling homes and nerves but leaving most of the epicentre intact, except for one or two isolated spots where it strikes with deadly force.
Usually the collapsed buildings are old, built before Taiwan brought in better building codes, and still have not been reinforced.
Rescuers in the eastern tourist city of Hualien are racing against the clock to locate missing residents in a precariously tilting apartment block after a moderately strong 6.4 quake struck overnight.
At least seven people have died across the city and some 88 people remain unaccounted for.
For many there is a grim sense of deja vu.
Exactly two years earlier, on 6 February 2016, a quake of the same magnitude hit the western city of Tainan.
Again most of the city’s buildings successfully bore the brunt of the shockwaves coursing through the ground. But one apartment block collapsed in on itself, killing 117 people.
Prosecutors said there were flaws in the building including inadequate steel reinforcement bars while relatives of those killed were enraged when photos sxThe codes put in place stricter requirements to make structures more quake-proof, including increasing the number and resilience of reinforcing bars.
But many say enforcement remains patchy while not enough has been done to reinforce some of the buildings that went up before then.
Cheng Ming-chang, former head of the Tainan Civil Engineers Association in southern Taiwan, told AFP the “biggest barrier” to quake preparation was funding to reinforce the older buildings.
“People who live in older buildings tend to be less well-off. Even though they are aware of safety issues, they feel like there’s nothing they can really do and they either take an ‘ostrich attitude’ and ignore it or they just choose to move to a new place,” he told AFP.
“If there are similar strength quakes in the future, it might be unavoidable that old buildings will be damaged,” he added.
Over the last three decades Taiwan has gone from an impoverished military dictatorship to a thriving democracy and one of Asia’s wealthier societies.
The average GDP per capita is around $32,000, triple that of mainland China, above tech-savvy South Korea ($27,000) and not far behind Japan ($38,000).
Much of the more recent wealth has been built off the back of a thriving microchip and other high-tech industries that fuel the world’s smartphones and computers.
Bullet trains zip up and down the west coast, the capital Taipei boasts a meticulously clean and expansive subway and crime rates are low.
But the island is still blighted by a reputation for cost-cutting shortcuts and a cultural disregard for safety standards.