The Day Taiwan Crumbled

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You probably won't notice any butterflies in Puli this week. The little town near Taiwan's Central Mountain Range has long been known for its butterflies, as well as its Buddhist temples, scenery and rice wine. If you could forget the fact that Puli--along with the rest of Taiwan--is located directly atop the juncture of the geological yin and yang known as the Eurasian and Philippine Sea plates, the town would seem positively idyllic.

Without warning, the earth moved under Taiwan, triggering the island's worst natural disaster in 64 years. Political aftershocks will be felt locally--and in China

Last week, the plates made it impossible to forget. At 1:47 on Tuesday morning, Taiwan was slammed by an earthquake that measured 7.3 on the Richter scale, and Puli, near the epicenter, was wrenched about like a butterfly in a malevolent storm. Buildings peeled open like dollhouses, walls stripped away and still-furnished rooms exposed to the air. The ground split in violent schisms. In the aftermath, pedigreed house dogs searched for their owners on roads littered with doleful debris: a crate of tennis shoes, a spice cabinet, a human arm.

By week's end, the islandwide death toll from Taiwan's biggest quake since 1935 was nearly 2,000, a figure that could rise as more bodies are pulled out of the rubble. More than 8,500 people were injured, 100,000 were made temporarily homeless and 6,000 buildings were wrecked. Relief workers from the United States, Turkey, Russia, Japan and elsewhere mobilized to help. An aftershock was even felt on stock exchanges worldwide as punters panicked about a shutdown of Taiwan's giant microchip and circuit board industries and the impact on the always-jumpy electronics sector. (That turned out to be an overreaction: as soon as the island's electricity supply is restored, the electronics factories are expected to be back in business.) And on Saturday night, President Lee Teng-hui signed an emergency decree that, if the legislature approves it, will give the military enhanced powers to maintain order and will allow for severe punishment of black-marketeers and others who try to take advantage of the devastating quake.

A rumble in the dead of night, terror and chaos, cries from horrific ruins: only weeks after the disastrous earthquakes in Turkey and Greece, which killed thousands, the news from Taiwan seemed diabolically familiar, as if the 20th century was going out in a pile of rubble. The only good news from the experts is that the quakes aren't connected. There's no El Niņo-like effect that has caused this chain of earthquakes, says American seismologist John Greeling, who flew to Taiwan from California. It's just a bad coincidence. Taiwan's temblor was geostratically inevitable. The Eurasian plate overlaps the Philippine Sea plate to the north of the island and sinks under it to the south. The result is 51 fault lines scoring Taiwan, 20 serious quakes this century--and the distinct chance of more coming soon. It is very possible that Taiwan will be hit with the recurring nightmare of high-scale aftershocks in the next two to three months, says Wei Kuo-yen, professor of geology at National Taiwan University.
In Puli, a ghostly calm descended as survivors contemplated picking up the pieces. Chiang Shih-wen, a 28-year-old high-school teacher, sat with her 90-year-old grandmother in a tent on a school playing field surrounded by household articles they had removed from their home for safety: pots and pans, a couple of pillows, photo albums. The two were waiting to hear whether their home was safe to return to. When things like this happen in other places, you don't really take notice, said Chiang. But if it's your own town, you understand that every death figure includes a person that you knew.

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