TAIPEI -- The world still remembers the month of September for the terrorist attacks in New York. For most Taiwanese, however, the month will stay long in memory for another tragedy -- the devastating earthquake that hit central Taiwan on Sept. 21, 1999.
Some six years have passed since the major quake, popularly known in Taiwan as the "921 Earthquake," struck. Today, Taiwan can boast of its unique achievement of successfully turning one of its worst natural disasters in the 20th century into an advantage, having steered the hardest-hit local communities to economic recovery .
Symbolic of such efforts are the preservation of some heavily devastated facilities as memorials site to attract tourists, and the creation of a new industry to replace the farming industry.
At 1:47 a.m. on Sept. 21, 1999, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.6 struck Chichi township in central Taiwan's Nantou County, and devastated much of central Taiwan, killing 2,455 people and injuring 11,305, making it the second-worst temblor to hit Taiwan in the last century.
According to the 921 Earthquake Post-Disaster Recover Commission of the central government, 38,935 buildings were completely destroyed, 45,320 partly wrecked, 102 bridges broken and 37 roads damaged. Damage to the entire economy exceeded (US)$ 11.25 billion. The Taiwan government allocated NT$ 212.3 billion (about $ 6.54 billion) in recovery funds, of which 94 percent had been expended by August 2005.
Since Taiwan is located on the boundary between the Eurasia and the Philippine Sea plates, earthquakes had struck several times in the past. The 921 Earthquake was the most destructive since the 1935 Hsinchu-Taichung earthquake, which hit western parts of Taiwan with a magnitude of 7.1 and caused the death of 3,276 people.
In the 1999 quake, central Taiwan bore the brunt of the damage. With Chichi township in Nantou county as the epicenter, neighboring counties such as Taichung and Changhua were also heavily affected.
For instance, the Chelungpu Fault, which extends some 100 km through Wufong township in Taichung county, ruptured in some areas in the quake's aftermath. Among those devastated by the rupture was Kuang-Fu Junior High School in Wufong township. It physically elevated the school's track and field facility by 2.5 meters, crushed its classrooms and destroyed a swimming pool.
Instead of rebuilding the school facilities, the Ministry of Education, the 921 Earthquake Post-Disaster Recover Commission and the city residents agreed to turn the school into a memorial, eventually known as the 921 Earthquake Museum.
Keeping the damaged school facilities would not only preserve the memory of tragedy but also increase the people's understanding of natural phenomena and remind them of the need for disaster preparedness.
The museum preserves part of the ruptured fault line and the damaged facilities, and at the same time serves as an educational showcase that explains nature's earthquake cycles and disaster alert systems. Museum officials say that the memorial attempts to help people understand the tough realities brought about by natural disasters and earthquakes' impact on communities, as well as to remind visitors of the importance of taking precautions against future disasters.
Today, many tourists and students from Taiwan as well as from foreign countries such as Japan visit the museum, which opened in September 2004. As many as 460,000 people visited the museum in 2005. The average number of visitors per day was 1,000. Last year, about 40 percent of them were students and about 3 percent were foreigners, according to Christine Lin, a guide of the museum.
Michael Reilly, one of the recent visitors, came to Taiwan as a member of the U.S. Urban Search and Rescue teams in 1999. He said that after seeing the "tremendous" damages, he realizes the "excellent" progress Taiwan has made in its recovery program. Especially the museum impresses him because it is used for educational purposes.
Reilly said that the lives of the 2,000 people who perished have not been wasted. "The memories (of the earthquake) will be preserved," he said.
Chichi township in Nantou county is another place hit hardest by the 1999 quake. According to the report from the 921 Earthquake Museum, 36 were killed, 50 were injured, 238 buildings collapsed, and 134 other buildings were partially destroyed in Chichi.
A Buddhist temple under construction in this small town also fell victim to the disaster. It had taken 10 years to build about 80 percent of the temple, when the quake struck. The structure's colorful ornaments were shattered and the orange-colored rooftop crashed down to the first floor. Now this temple has been preserved as a memorial site and is contributing to the community as a popular tourist attraction. Many motorcyclists stop by to look at the rubble inside and the rooftop.
Peter Liu, a local volunteer guide, said the community has changed since the earthquake.
"Chichi town was a small farming community. After the earthquake, the town has turned out to be a sightseeing spot," he said. "Some 60 percent of the residents have changed their jobs to something related to tourism."
Cases of local farmers in Chichi shifting to other jobs after the quake were not rare.
"Most people in this area once lived on farming, but the earthquake devastated their paddy fields, their houses," said Chu Shi-ping, director general of the Department of General Affairs of the central government. "It was a big shock to the community."
How to get over the effects of the destruction was one of the central government's top-priority policy matters. The government assisted farmers in finding part-time jobs. To this end, the government launched a three-stage plan. The first stage was to provide training to local farmers, so they have better skills than before. In the next stage, they could start businesses with their newly acquired skills. The third stage was to attract tourists, according to Chu.
The Dahu Wineland Resort, a strawberry winery in the town of Dahu in Miaoli county in western Taiwan, is one of the model cases arising from this project.
Strawberry is a principal agricultural product of the area because of its climate. The winery suffered relatively minor damages in the quake. The Council of Agriculture, the 921 Earthquake Post-Disaster Recover Commission and the Miaoli county government joined hands in encouraging the local farmers' association to promote the local strawberry-related business.
Today,the employees at the resort produce not only strawberry and its wine, but make specialty food products, such as sausages with strawberry-wine flavor and strawberry-based cuisine. These days, about 60,000 people visit the place on weekends, according to Huang Jung-chiang, CEO of the Dahu Area Farmer's Association.
"This facility has helped the local economy to recover by developing the strawberry-related business," said Huang.
Since the quake, the Taiwanese people have worked very hard to rehabilitate the island's economy, said Tony Ong, deputy director of the International Information Department of the Government Information Office.
"In Chinese, we have a proverb saying, 'a disaster brings risks and opportunities,' " he said.
The post-earthquake recovery shows how well Taiwan has seized on the opportunities.