September 21, 1999 Earthquake kills thousands in Taiwan
An earthquake in Taiwan on this day in 1999 kills thousands of people, causes billions of dollars in damages and leaves an estimated 100,000 homeless. It was the worst earthquake to hit Taiwan since a 1935 tremor that killed 3,200 people.
At 1:47 on the morning of September 21, with most people eagerly awaiting the annual Autumn Festival, the island nation of Taiwan was shaken awake by a 7.6-magnitude earthquake. The tremor was centered in central Taiwan along the west coast near Nantou and Taichung, but serious damage was found throughout the island. Roads buckled and landslides diverted rivers, causing the impromptu formation of lakes. To make things even worse, there were five aftershocks measuring at least 6.0 in magnitude in the 30 minutes following the major quake.
Buildings all over the island proved to be vulnerable. A 12-story hotel in Taipei was completely destroyed. A 14-story building in Dongshi was toppled. The quake exposed the fact that much shoddy construction had occurred during Taiwan’s construction boom in the 1990s. The worst-hit area was Tungshih, where virtually every building was damaged and the population of 60,000 was left without electricity, water or telephone service.
There was evidence of serious damage throughout the country. A new waterfall sprang up instantly on a river near a collapsed bridge, several Buddhist temples gave way and, in the capital city of Taipei, there were many fires. Because the quake had caused a vertical displacement of land of up to 26 feet in some places, new small hills were formed suddenly across the countryside.
The government’s response to the disaster was less than satisfactory to the people. Nations from around the world offered and provided assistance. Taiwan rejected all offers of aid from China, however, except for about $100,000 in cash.
With thousands dead, there was not enough freezer capacity in the country’s morgues to hold all the bodies. Tent cities popped up in fields and parks because many people were afraid of being in buildings while aftershocks continued. There were more than 8,000 aftershocks in the months following the quake.
Subsequent construction in Taiwan has been more closely monitored to ensure that future earthquakes will not cause such large-scale destruction and loss of life.