How California Cushioned the Taiwan Quake

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Taiwan's earthquake toll has risen above 1,800, but the island has strict building codes to thank for the fact that it wasn't considerably higher. As rescuers Wednesday struggled to reach some 3,000 people estimated to be trapped under the rubble and quake specialists and civil engineers from around the world rushed to Taiwan to study the latest disaster, early word was that it could have been a lot worse. Despite the strength of the tremor — 7.6 on the Richter scale compared with 7.4 for the recent Turkish disaster — the destruction was limited by the enforcement of strict building codes, some of them modeled after those in California. Still, a death toll of over 1,800 is high for a natural disaster in an industrialized country, and may provoke longer-term questions about patterns of development. "Natural disasters worldwide have increased eightfold since the 1970s, but there’s been very little concern for environmental issues in the rush to make money," says TIME correspondent William Dowell. "Events such as the Taiwan quake may prompt governments to think beyond the narrow concerns of the economy in approaching issues of development and urbanization."

Though the island and its economy will have escaped relatively unscathed, the bad news is that traumatic earthquakes may become something of a trend in Taiwan — the island sits atop the fault line where the Philippine tectonic plate is grinding into the Eurasian plate. But in what is almost certainly an unintentional reflection of its geopolitical position, Taiwan applies three sets of building codes: its own, mainland China's and California's.