The 3 April Earthquake in Taiwan

Navigating the Aftermath: Insights from Taiwan’s 2024 Earthquake

On 3 April 2024 at just before 8 a.m., Taiwan’s strongest earthquake since 1999 shook the island. In this article, I will provide a brief overview and other information on areas of our day-to-day work, but will also talk about where and how I experienced the earthquake as well as sharing some personal lessons learned.

As most of you will remember from the international media reports, the main earthquake occurred on 3 April 2024 registering a magnitude of 7.4, which made it the biggest earthquake in Taiwan for the last 25 years. For me personally, it was probably the fifth or sixth earthquake that I have noted since my arrival in Taiwan in May 2020. The epicenter was located 16 km south of Hualien City on the east coast of Taiwan. Since the east coast drops very steeply, the risk of a tsunami on this coast is small and the maximum wave height reported was 1 m at Hualien.

The Strongest Earthquake Since 1999

To date, official reports state that 18 persons were killed, 11 of whom by rockfalls, since the epicenter was near the mountains in Hualian, where the Taroko Gorge is also a popular tourist destination. In total, at least 1100 people were injured. Severe damage was caused to roads due to landslides and damaged bridges. Luckily, none of our employees or their family members were affected.

According to the Taiwanese Central Weather Agency, more than 1000 aftershocks followed over the subsequent weeks. On 23 April, more than 80 aftershocks occurred, some of which woke most of us in the middle of the night or caught us during meetings and videocalls, even with some of our German colleagues online. In Taipei, however, they were mostly not more than a gentle rocking of the buildings and the hanging pictures or lamps.

As dreadful as the loss of life and the damage are, they are less severe than in previous earthquakes and especially the last big one in 1999 with a magnitude of 7.7, in which 2300 people were killed.

“It was astounding to see how well prepared Taiwan actually was for this situation.”

The following graph shows all earthquakes above a magnitude of 4 in Taiwan since 1970 based on the USGS database (out of a total of 6300 recorded). It is noticeable that this earthquake ranks among the strongest ones, with only the 1999 earthquake having been stronger. Against this background, it was astounding to see how well prepared Taiwan actually was for this situation.

Earthquakes in Taiwan with a magnitude above 4 since 1970

Earthquakes in Taiwan with a magnitude above 4 since 1970 (Source: USGS)

Effects on Infrastructure

Approx. 28 buildings were severely damaged (some tilted) and needed to be demolished. 2498 homes and buildings were damaged, and 779 landslides were reported that blocked or destroyed roads and bridges. Though most people and colleagues felt the tremors very strongly in Taipei, the damage to buildings was mostly superficial and not structural, with plaster cracking or falling off walls. Usually the further up in a building you live, the worse the effect is, since the building will swing and bottles, glass and porcelain will fall out of your cupboards. Our office building shook so strongly that a sideboard toppled over and some tiles in the bathrooms cracked and fell off.

Location and intensity and shakemap of the 7.2 earthquake on 3 April 2024 with all aftershocks in the following 30 days (Source: USGS)

Compared to the 82,000 houses damaged in 1999, the above numbers clearly show the advances that Taiwan has made in the past 25 years. Since 1999, the building code was revised and became much stricter, comparable to the level of that of Japan. New buildings are now often built with seismic isolation, usually lead rubber bearings. Public buildings such as hospitals and schools were required to be retrofitted to the standard, typically by adding structural reinforcements, and a total of EUR 1.5 billion was spent on this improvement. The success can be seen now, since not a single school or hospital building was critically damaged.

“The damage to buildings was mostly superficial and not structural.”

Our colleague and chairman, Chiawey Chen, supported this process as a structural engineering expert and member of several professional civil engineers associations in Taiwan. Since these structural upgrades also come with higher costs, the building code must balance these against the benefit. Under the current requirements, buildings must be able to withstand an earthquake up to a magnitude of 5. Then there is also a focus on the stability of the structural columns, which are designed to be stronger while beams are lighter. Damage to a beam is deemed acceptable, since with the columns intact, the building will not collapse and there will be time for an evacuation.

Administration and Authorities Were Very Well Prepared

Seismic loads, earthquake safety and compliance with the changing regulations have always been an expertise of Fichtner in Taiwan, and they continue to be a constant topic in all of our projects, be it in the waste-to-energy plants with the boiler structures or the foundations of the onshore and offshore substations that we are currently working on, not to mention the foundations of the high-speed railway that the team had advised on before.

It was almost incredible to see how prepared the administration was. The inspection and repair works began immediately after the earthquake. The Civil Association has around 3000 designated inspection engineers listed, who were dispatched the same day to inspect buildings for damage and mark them with code red or yellow. The damaged and tilted buildings were evacuated, and a week later they had already been demolished. People whose houses have been severely damaged can receive access to funds for short-term housing subsidies of around 1250 euros per month for accommodation in hotels, while there are also funds for smaller damage to one’s house or apartment.

Where possible, roads were cleared and bridges repaired on the same day. And even though the main road from Hualien to Taipei remains closed until today due to damaged bridges, the trains from Hualien to Taipei were already running again the next day without a problem.

“The inspection and repair works began immediately after the earthquake.”

Also, the mobile phone and data network worked without major interruptions, and in several of the available videos you could notice that the broadcasting function with the emergency alert apparently helped drivers to understand that this was an earthquake, enabling people to seek cover in tunnels or under protective structures. This alert function is automatically activated by seismic measurements and tends to raise an alarm one or two seconds before the earthquake occurs, or sometimes also later, and has quite an annoying sound, which does not necessarily help you to stay calm if you have not heard it before.

Electricity Sector

While there was no direct effect on the electricity system noticeable to private consumers, the damage incurred by some of the power plants brought the system close to load shedding and thus blackouts.

According to the utility Taipower, the earthquake caused several power plant units and substations to go offline, resulting in a loss of 3.2 GW of capacity. Taipower emphasized that the energy storage system played a crucial role in filling the power gap caused by the tripped units, preventing a wider blackout.

As the earthquake struck, coal-fired, gas-fired, and private gas-fired power stations began to stop generating, while solar power generation and energy storage systems began supplying power. While the earthquake struck just before 8:00 a.m., the most significant impact on power generation occurred at around 8:10 a.m., but the energy storage system and solar power apparently helped to stabilize the power supply.

Offshore wind generation also saw a dip, presumably due to the turbines entering the idling mode due to the abnormal vibrations recorded by the condition monitoring system. However, by noon the same day, most of the wind generation was already back online.

With damage to the coal and gas-fired power plants, the back-up capacity had dropped to only 3% and Taipower had already prepared an emergency plan for load shedding in the northern area of Taiwan. But with the ramping-up of hydropower and combined cycle generators as well as a reduction request to industrial consumers, a direct impact on the electricity supply could be avoided.

We were also happy to see that none of the projects that we are currently working on were affected and that our projects in the field of offshore wind, photovoltaics and battery storage were able to contribute to a short-term stabilization of the grid.

The situation, however, underlines how the electricity system in Taiwan is generally facing similar issues as Germany’s grid, with an impending shortage of capacity since nuclear is about to be phased out and renewable energies are behind the government’s planned target. At the same time, Taipower’s grid is not yet ready for the future and they have big plans for a grid improvement program in the next 10 years with a budget set for EUR 16 billion.

Personal Experience and Lessons Learned

At the moment of the earthquake, I was actually on vacation on the east coast nearby the epicenter of the earthquake. Luckily, it was early in the day and we were still at the hotel in a room at ground level, where it was strong but no damage was incurred in the surroundings.

I had just come back from cycling and started to shower when the earthquake started. This timing took away some of the options I would otherwise have had. I turned off the water, had no towel handy and just made it outside to check on my family who were on the floor next to the bed. By the time I got there, it was almost over already and, apart from the shaking, nothing had happened other than something falling off the breakfast buffet table upstairs.

The kids were quite relaxed, given that they train earthquake responses at their kindergarten regularly, normally wearing some funny soft helmet during evacuation to protect against falling debris (Apparently, this type of covering comes from Japan and its benefit is that it can be easier put on and store than hard helmets for the entire school).

A Return Journey with Detours

The first aftershocks came later during breakfast time, but all the hotel staff were mostly calm and nothing further happened. However, we realized the severity with all the messages coming in on the phones, and during the next hour it became clearer that our intended travel back to Taipei was challenged by the damage and landslides that had occurred. We therefore decided to stay another day at the hotel and monitor the developments during the day. The hotel owner was even so kind as to insist on not charging us for this second night. While driving not far from the hotel, we could already see rockfall and landslides and it became clear that in order to return to Taipei, we would have to take a detour to the south first and then up on the west coast, resulting in almost a 12-hour drive versus the four and a half hours that the east coast road would have normally taken. Finally, we arrived at home with a day’s delay but were all safe and also found our apartment to be undamaged apart from a hollow egg that had fallen off the shelf.

Better Prepared for the Future

Nonetheless, the road damage I had seen and the videos of cars on the road left me feeling a bit uneasy, so for future rides to the mountains I plan to be better prepared – at least to a minimum, as also taught in our training courses on travel abroad. For those who got stuck that day, it was very helpful to have enough water with them as well as charged phones and at least a knowledge of the emergency numbers to contact in such a situation.

At home it is helpful to have a “grab bag” prepared, which contains all that you would want to have if you cannot immediately go back to your apartment (water, torches, copies of important documents, snacks, back-up phone and batteries, radios, etc.). And I actually know people who had that prepared and managed to grab it in time – so that will be the goal for the future.

In the end, this earthquake has brought my focus back to some things that often get lost in the daily routine and everyday life and have shown what to watch out for while being on the road. Even if it is impossible to be fully prepared for the specific moment, there are things that can be prepared. And I will most likely be back visiting the beautiful east coast of Taiwan at some point.

Final Note:

If you are in a country prone to earthquakes, it is also advisable to regularly have a look at the recommendations of research institutions such as the German Research Centre for Geosciences GFZ (Infothek: GFZ (gfz-potsdam.de)). Generally, as a German citizen living abroad, you should register yourself and your family in the crisis management list of the German Federal Foreign Office (ELEFAND Anmeldung (diplo.de)).

July 2024

Markus Schüller

Managing Director

Fichtner Pacific Engineers

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