After quake, town moves to a parking lot

An American schoolteacher in Taiwan describes life after an earthquake.

Yesterday morning, no alarm clock was necessary. A 5.6 magnitude aftershock woke me up. And on a bamboo mattress, the jolts are hard.

But at least I'm staying indoors at a friend's house now. And six days after Taiwan's strongest earthquake in 64 years, people here in Changhua, 20 miles from the epicenter, are similarly trying to create a sense of normalcy. So last night, there were fireworks.

Loud, colorful, and lighting up a sky dark from the loss of electrical power, the fireworks were part of the weekend's observance of the Midautumn festival. The atmosphere in this city of 300,000 was more subdued than it would have been normally. Yet on this holiday of reunions, barbecues, and the celebration of life, the hibachi grills were out in force.

The good news yesterday from the capital, Taipei, is that two brothers were found alive in the rubble of a 12-story building. They were playing cards when the quake struck. But more than 2,000 have died in the 7.6 magnitude temblor and its aftershocks, and people have been angry at the pace of the recovery. Says Changhua resident Wu Ting-ying, "I heard the government knew this could happen, but they didn't do anything about it. It makes me very angry."

The majority of toppled buildings are less than 10 years old. They were built at a time where bribery was rampant and cutting corners in building materials went largely ignored by inspectors. One contractor, who had four of his buildings fall, has been arrested and charged with using materials that are below code. A show-no-mercy investigation and roundup of corrupt contractors is expected. One building was found to have tin cans where there should have been solid cement.

The situation has been compounded by the perceived inaction of the politicians. "It's sad how many people have died. The politicians here are very bad; they just show up at the disaster sites and say how sorry they are that this happened, but they haven't really done anything that helps," says Wu Hung-yang.

Help from outside

Last week Taiwan's Foreign Minister Jason Hu said China was "looting a burning house," because China had asked foreign countries to deal with it instead of directly with Taiwan in sending aid. President Lee Teng-hui's statements in July that Taiwan's relations with China should be on a "state-to-state" basis have played into this past week's events, with China repeatedly saying Mr. Lee should renounce the statements.

Most Taiwanese seemed to welcome Lee's declaration Saturday of a state of emergency, since it is expected to expedite recovery procedures. Yet among the foreigners here, the reaction is quite different. The state of emergency gives the government six months of wide-ranging powers to commandeer everything from private land and vehicles to water supplies. Democracy has flourished here for more than a decade. But the state of emergency is a reminder of 38 years of martial law before that.

Yet this past week, mostly I've been struck by the generosity here. The parking lot I was sleeping in had become a community, as had most parking lots. Even with the rationing of water and scarcity of basic supplies such as batteries, blankets, and fresh food, people have never hesitated to offer some of what they have. There is still a need for tents, blankets, and clothing for those left homeless.

Getting by on short supplies

The grocery and convenience stores are open, although stocks are mostly depleted. Prepared sauces - hot chili, vinegars, and soy sauces are still in abundance - so you can make tofu almost taste good. And even if they do taste sort of like rubber tires, three-foot-long dried squid and other dried fish are available in spades.

Street vendors also have locally grown fruit and vegetables to sell, but buyers are looking for food that they can peel. With water scarce, it's difficult to shower and flush toilets, much less clean up after cooking or rinse cabbage.

I'd like to spend the night in my own apartment. But big new cracks have appeared in the walls and ceiling, and we haven't had a building inspection yet. Ten minutes in either direction from Changhua are the worst sites in Taiwan. With so much of the region's resources going to recovery, there's no way officials can stop people from going in to what may be dangerous buildings, so people basically have to use their own judgment. Some people are living in my building.

As a native Bay area Californian, one big difference in the way I've noticed things are being handled here is the gut reactions to the quake. Since our own grade-school earthquake drills, I was taught that when the earth starts moving, you get under something. But in the past few days, when things start to shake, as I head for a heavy object, people have been grabbing me and heading out the door. On television, which we can watch when the power is intermittently on, the public service announcements tell schoolchildren to grab their book bags, put them over their heads, and run down the hallway.

In the school where I teach, that might not be so easy. My classroom at the Perimeter International School is on the second floor. No one has said when school is to start again. But when it does, and if there's another aftershock, I'll have to do what feels right to me.

At least we had a fire drill a week ago, before the earthquake. We teachers jumped out of the windows and slid down to the ground on ropes. My kindergartners are ready for an emergency.

As Chao Pei-chung, a member of the family that gave me a place in their tent said, "In Taiwan, it's like a big family, we all help each other and hope they survive. We will all work together to rebuild our country, things will return to normal."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.