A year on, Hualien earthquake victims still coping with disaster

A year after an earthquake struck the city on Feb. 6, 2018, claiming the lives of 17 people, many continue to struggle to rebuild their lives

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(By Central News Agency)

TAIPEI (CNA) -- An earthquake that struck the city of Hualien on Feb. 6, 2018, claiming the lives of 17 people and causing the partial collapse of four buildings, left many of the survivors traumatized and homeless.

A year later, some continue to struggle to rebuild their lives, waiting for more permanent housing promised by the government on which construction only recently began after a long delay.

The magnitude 6 temblor struck Hualien at 11:50 p.m., leading to the partial destruction of the Marshal Hotel (統帥飯店), the Yun Men Tsui Ti (雲門翠堤) commercial and residential complex, and the Platinum Twin Star (白金雙星大樓) and the Wu-ju-wu-shu (吾居吾宿大樓) residential buildings.


(CNA file photo)

The three residential buildings that partially collapsed had a total of 195 residential units, and for some of the people that owned them, the disaster is still with them as their lives remain in limbo.

Money or Safety

The county government offered the owners of the 195 units a choice: financial assistance or relocation to a new home under a plan called "Project Safe House."

Financial assistance came in two forms, with the county either buying back the damaged units or offering a subsidy of NT$110,000 (US$3,572) per ping (equal to about 3.3 square meters) of the units they owned.

According to local media, the average property price in Hualien County was NT$104,000 per ping in 2014 and NT$141,000 per ping last year.

Under Project Safe House, new earthquake-resistant homes would be built for the owners of the damaged units just outside the city.

Ultimately, 151 opted for financial assistance and 44 chose the safe house offer. Some of the owners who took the money were concerned that the new units would not be in the city, where they were used to living.

Others worried the safe house project would not be completed on schedule, which is what eventually happened.

Project Safe House was postponed for nearly a year because of the time needed to apply for an earthquake-resistant building certificate.

But work on the project, which will consist of two five-story buildings with units of 15, 23, 30 and 40 pings, finally got under way before the Lunar New Year holiday, creating a sense of anticipation among those who have been seeking a return to stability in their lives.

"I'm hoping the new house can be built soon," said the project's director, Chang Yi-Chieh (張宜婕), who used to live in the Yun Men Tsui Ti complex.

She said the residents who chose to relocate have supported each other during the past year, but she was very much looking forward to the day when she could move in to her new home and start afresh.

Bad Memories

For Huang Chin-kui (黃進貴), a member of the Platinum Twin Star's building management committee, the new housing units can come none too soon.

Huang and his wife have stayed at his sister's home since their building was destroyed by the earthquake, an arrangement he described as "inconvenient."

Huang said he wanted to apply for financial assistance but his wife insisted they live in an earthquake-resistant house and was unhappy with him until he relented, a sentiment driven by their earthquake experience.

His wife served as the building's administrator and normally worked on the first floor. Had the earthquake occurred during the day, she would have been killed, Huang said, because the first floor of the Platinum Twin Star caved in.

"The fear of having no way to escape lingers," he said, recalling the night of Feb. 6.

When the earthquake struck, the walls on the second floor quickly cracked, the windows shattered, and the doors could not be opened, he remembered, and the couple had to escape from the balcony in complete darkness.

Chu Yun-chieh (朱雲潔), a resident of Yun Men Tsui Ti, chose to relocate, too.


(CNA File Photo)

Chu, who participated in the disaster relief effort, said seeing a building listing to one side perilously close to tumbling over, then being turned into ruins, still makes his heart ache.

Some of the affected households have suggested building an earthquake memorial or education hall to honor the victims and remember the tragedy at the original site of the Yun Men Tsui Ti complex, where most of the fatalities occurred.

Many of the dead were guests staying at a small inn on the building's lower floors that collapsed.

Teng Tzu-yu (鄧子榆), director of the Hualien County Economic Affairs Department, said the proposal might be sent to the Charity Committee, a government body overseeing how the county is using the donations received for reconstruction.

Accountability

As most of the survivors from the buildings destroyed by the earthquake try to leave the incident behind, the tough pledges that people would be held accountable for the design and construction flaws that led to the structures' failures have yet to be fulfilled.

Hualien prosecutors investigated possible negligence in the construction of the four buildings that collapsed or tilted during the earthquake.

The investigation found that the architect of the Marshal Hotel, identified by his surname Hung, overlooked a design flaw which resulted in the death of one hotel employee.

Hung's prosecution was deferred, however, because the victim's family decided not to press charges.

More promising is that Liu Ying-lin (劉英麟), the developer of the Yun Men Tsui Ti complex, was indicted for negligent homicide following a four-month investigation by Hualien prosecutors.

Prosecutors said at the time he was not professionally licensed to engage in construction but took charge of the project and made certain adjustments to increase his profits that weakened the building's structure.

Liu has been released on bail recently but barred from leaving the country, and it is unclear when he will go to trial.

The Way Forward

The sites of the four buildings have been cleared of debris, but it remains uncertain whether new buildings will be erected in their locations.

Beyond the four buildings, Hualien County suffered damage to some key infrastructure. The temblor's destructive force, for example, caused deep cracks on the piers of Qixingtan Bridge, ruptures in the Hualien Bridge and Martyrs' Shrine, and the lifting up of Qixingtan Beach.


(CNA file photo)

But most of the necessary repairs have been made, with only three bridges yet to be fixed, Teng says.

For the actual survivors, however, many still wait, hoping that the promise of earthquake-resistant buildings can help them recover from the memories from a year ago that still haunt them today.