All over Taiwan, but particularly in the central part of the country, you’ll hear about the 921 Earthquake (九二一大地震; jiŭèryī dàdìzhèn): the epithet refers to the 7.3-magnitude quake that ripped across the island at 1.47am on September 21, 1999, killing 2455 people, injuring more than 8000 and destroying 50,652 buildings. It’s also known as the Chi-Chi Earthquake – the epicentre was beneath the town of Jiji, 12.5km west of Sun Moon Lake. In fact, many of the casualties in Nantou county occurred during an aftershock five days later that measured 6.7 on the Richter scale, flattening buildings weakened on September 21.
Despite the heroic efforts of rescue services in the days after the disaster, the government was criticized in some places for its slow response. Though it established the 921 Earthquake Post-disaster Recovery Commission to oversee around NT$106bn in funding to help affected areas, many building contractors responsible for illegal construction – blamed for many of the deaths – have never been prosecuted.
Earthquakes are a problem in Taiwan because the island sits on a fault line between the Eurasian and Philippine tectonic plates, causing almost constant seismic activity, though 75 percent of all quakes occur in the sparsely populated eastern half of the island. When western Taiwan is affected, the results can be catastrophic, though most buildings today can easily absorb all but the strongest tremors.