Confucius says: We have two lives, and the second begins when we realise we only have one.
September 21 1999 was a horrible and tragic day in the Taiwan history. In the early hours of that morning, while most people will sleeping peacefully, the earth gave a shiver and an earthquake reading 7.3 on the Richter scale shook the centre of Taiwan awake. 12 911 aftershocks were recorded, on September 26 there was one that measured 6.8 on the Richter scale. 2 415 people were killed, 29 missing, 11 300 injured, 51 711 buildings were destroyed.
The epicentre was in a small town called Jiji, Nantou county. An Earthquake Museum was built there. There is also a temple that collapsed and the authorities decided to keep it in its damaged state as a reminder of how quickly things can change when one lives in the Ring of Fire.
I visited these sites recently on a school outing. Its a strange experience to know you are standing right in / on the fault line that caused so much destruction.
While we were visiting the temple site one teacher, Hsin Hung (a devoted Christian) said “They say people were running into this temple while the earth was still shaking to save their gods. Its so strange because I have a God who saved me.”
How did I experience earthquakes in my years in Taiwan? First I should mention that I’m based in the south west of Taiwan. My observation is that the east coast experiences more earthquakes than the west coast. On the day I’m writing this I have only experienced one while not at home or at school. That gives me some peace of mind – being in familiar surroundings and with people I know and trust. I’m not sure if I will be able to stay calm if I was in a city centre though. All the tremors I have experienced have been small / light, around 3 – 3.5 on the Richter scale. These I do not feel when I’m standing and only slightly when I’m sitting. But lying on my bed it’s more noticeable and a very eerie feeling. When you bump against something your brain or body expects to feel movement, or when you travel in a vehicle your body moves with the vehicle. But a tremor is different. Lying on my bed I experience a movement below me but it also feels like my body did not move. They have all only lasted a few seconds. The first time I rushed outside but later I learnt to just relax again and let the adrenaline subside.
There were two tremors that stand out for me. They were also small ones. The one was at about 7 in the morning, I was standing and heard a loud noise and I felt the tremor. I rushed outside and asked my neighbour who was sweeping his patio if he also felt it. He said no. Later I asked others about the noise I heard and they said it was an earthquake. I do not know what made the noise. The other one I was visiting a friend who lives on the third floor of a building. We were on the roof of her building. It’s closed on the two short sides, the long sides only have half walls. This is the communal dining area and laundry for the residents in that building. There was a tremor but it seemed to last forever. My reaction was to run for the doorframe and stand there. My friend shouted at me to stand still. I did, once I was in the doorframe. Later I worked out the reason why it felt as if it lasted for a long time was because of the structure of the building and that the long open space was ‘bouncing’ up and down. That was very scary.
As I have mentioned before I teach at three schools and honestly if a big one had to shake Taiwan I know at which school I would like to be then. All the schools have regular earthquake drills and on many of our school outings we visit centres where we are shown how to evacuate a building and have a chance to sit in a room where an earthquake is simulated and then to go through the drill of covering your head with whatever you can find and hiding under a table / desk / counter. One of my schools do this drill thoroughly and pay attention to the smallest detail. I will call that School A. The other two schools do not take the drill serious at all and its done in a very lackadaisical way.
How does the school prepare for such an event? This is at school A. Near the exit door of each classroom there is a hook on the wall. On that hook hangs a hard hat for the teacher as well as the “go bag”. In a go bag is a whistle as well as some snacks or dried food, a bottle of water, plastic raincoats for every student in the class. Hanging from each students chair is a head cover made of a thick fabric. I believe this is something that was invented by the Japanese and is now used in most of the schools in Taiwan. Students use this as a pillow when they have their naps after lunch and I use it as a blindfold when we play games in class while learning to give directions. Students know that this is never to be taken away from their chairs. In the office there is an instrument with a green screen and now and then I would notice it turns all red. I was told that is an instrument indicating an earthquake. When its red it picked up some tremor. When its a dangerous tremor a siren will go off and the students will grab their head covers and get under their desks. Whoever is nearest to the light switches (students or teacher) switches off all the lights before hiding under the desks. The teacher also hides under his or her desk. Then when the shaking has stopped the headmaster will make an announcement that everyone should evacuate. The students walk out of the class to the sports field, the teacher takes the go bag and puts on the hard hat and follows the students to the sports field. Here roll call is taken, injuries reported and treated if the student was able to walk to the sport field. If an injured person was left in the class then some teachers and the school nurse will go to the classroom, after it has been declared safe for them to enter, to assess and or treat the injured person. That person is then also brought to the sports field. The schools are also the gathering place for the whole village in the case of a really big earthquake where people have to evacuate their homes.
Every home has a go bag at the main entrance that the family take with them in such a case. In this bag will be either original documents or copies of IDs and passports (in case of a foreigner), some cash, extra clothes and shoes, raincoats, umbrellas, flashlights with extra batteries, fully charged power pack, food and water, as well as medication.
The military in Taiwan do similar ‘drills’. They will set up camp in different towns and villages for a week to see how they will handle a natural disaster from that town. Recently the Junior High School had this privilege to ‘host’ them. My back door and small porch has a roof and they used that space up right against my backdoor as their pantry and they had two men guarding the pantry round the clock. I felt like a VIP because every time I looked out my window I saw a uniformed guard protecting my space. The under cover parking area became their kitchen.
We all just went about our daily routines as if there weren’t about 50 huge camouflaged trucks lining the road on campus and parked in front of my front door. The military people were very gracious to us all. The officers had their meals in the teacher’s dining room and they always shared their food with us. Some days it was better than ours, I must admit. They also involved the students in that they brought a helicopter to land on the school field and they should us how they do certain evacuations. Afterwards the students were able to ask all the questions they wanted to.