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Note #106: Gyeongju quakes (2016.9.13)

Yesterday evening I was sitting here at my desk doing a bit of work (finishing up a translation to send out, in fact) when my monitor started to tremble. Then I heard objects on my bookcase rattle ever so slightly. It only lasted for a few seconds, but it still left quite an impression. I had felt earthquakes before, so I immediately knew what it was. HJ, who had apparently never experienced an earthquake, thought that the apartment might be collapsing.

This quake was the second and larger of two quakes that hit Gyeongju, in southern Korea. The first was a 5.1 and the second was a 5.8, the largest quake ever recorded in South Korea (although records only go back to 1978). We immediately turned on the news and were not surprised to see that they were talking about the quake. Reports started flooding in from southern Korea of furniture falling over and residents fleeing their homes. One old woman was injured when a television set fell over. The phrase “pihae sokchul” (literally, “damage/harm continues to occur”) rolled across the news ticker.

It is the news’ job, of course, to make mountains out of molehills. This morning I turned on the news again to hear reporters solemnly intoning that residents of southern cities had spent the night outdoors “with eyes wide open, unable to sleep.” Then there was footage showing the aftermath of the quakes: piles of broken roof tiles, low perimeter walls that had collapsed, wide cracks in interior concrete walls. I even heard that some ceilings had caved in.

This footage of the aftermath was, I suppose, intended to highlight just how serious the quake had been. Yet, despite the fact that 5.8 is the highest magnitude quake that has ever been recorded in the nation, it’s not actually that severe. 5.8 is considered to be a moderate earthquake. But if it wasn’t that severe a quake, why was there so much damage? Well, firstly, I’m not sure how much damage there really was. Remember the mountains and molehills? I’m pretty sure we saw the most severe instances of damage that reporters could find.

That’s only part of it, though—there still was damage, after all. The truth is that construction hasn’t always been up to snuff in Korea. Two months before I came to Korea, the Sampoong Department Store collapsed, resulting in over 500 deaths. The year before that, the Seongsu Bridge collapsed into the Han River, killing 32 people. It wasn’t a good time for the South Korean construction industry, but it wasn’t as if this had suddenly started being a problem. The mid 90s just happened to be when the chickens came home to roost. Construction standards and practices have been much improved in the 21st century, but there are still a lot of old buildings out there (especially outside of Seoul) that are very poorly constructed.

And, of course, since Korea has never been hit by a serious earthquake, there has never been a need to build earthquake-proof structures. It’s likely that even modern, well-built structures in South Korea would fare poorly in the type of major (7.0+) earthquakes that Japan gets on a fairly regular basis (in the past ten years, Japan has had 13 earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or higher, including the 9.0 Tōhoku earthquake of 2011). If such an earthquake were ever to hit Korea, it would most likely be devastating.

So I’m thankful that Korea does not sit on the Ring of Fire, that a 5.8 magnitude earthquake is the worst we’ve ever seen, and that a little moving and shaking was all I had to deal with last night. Even a moderate quake can have tragic consequences, though. A group of railway workers were replacing gravel on a rail line after midnight when they were struck by a train; two were killed and two were seriously injured. How do the quakes tie into all of this? Well, trains do not normally run on that section of the line after midnight, but the schedule had been disrupted by the quakes and trains were running later than usual. The deaths may not have been directly caused by the quakes, but that will be little consolation to the families of those workers.

Hopefully we will never have to deal with a major quake here in Korea, but if such a thing should ever happen, I’ll try to remember what I’ve learned. If you’re indoors, open any doors first and then take shelter under a table or desk. Once the quake has stopped, then leave the building and get to safety. Why open the doors first? Because a door damaged in a quake, even slightly, might be impossible to get open. It never hurts to be prepared.

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