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Living with shocks

Peter Lee

Last night the Taipei metro area suffered from substantial earthquake damage resulting from a 6.4 on the Richter scale shock under the sea nearby. Reports on the number of casualties differ - within two hours, local Chinese language media was reporting that there had been 29 deaths while national media, fed from state sources, reported two deaths and about 100 hospital casualties. It's all horribly reminiscent of the events of December 2006 and the lessons learned.

In Phuket, a taxi driver tells that the island has not really recovered from the devastation it suffered in the Boxing Day tsunami that hit following an under-sea earthquake far away. Only about ten percent, she estimated, of the island's formerly lucrative prawn fishery industry has returned: the rest took compensation and set up cafés and restaurants some distance from the shore, she said. Everywhere at beaches, especially those with low-lying land behind them, there are warning signs and directions to high ground, even on the east of the island which suffered only very minor damage compared to the devastation on the west coast.

Not that any of that hampers the sun-seekers who flock to the island in vast numbers, from Russia (immigration signs are in Thai, English and Russian) and China. None are visibly concerned about such a risk.

In Taipei, we spoke to a young professional couple shortly after the quake rocked their apartment building, shaking light fittings and making curtains sway. "We are used to it, " Mrs F said. " We have a bag by the door, ready to grab and run out if necessary. We have tinned food, bottled water and other necessary things." "Like clean pants," laughed her husband. He's English. He doesn't mean trousers.

"We live near an open space, she said, "We could run to it within a minute of leaving our building." We're pretty sure, if the building came down, we'd be safer there than hiding under a table", he added.

The realities of living around an active earthquake zone are thus. What is surprising is how widespread the damage can be. Java, the main island of Indonesia, has had some severe 'quakes in the past few years. They have rocked tall buildings across Malaysia. In Kuala Lumpur, several events have seen buildings evacuated. We asked our boss, Nigel Morris-Cotterill, who lives in a skyline apartment in KL whether he had been affected. "Yes, I often find that the photographs and so on on my walls are out of alignment. I've seen supposedly static light fittings sway and felt something like sea-sickness when the chair I was sitting in amplified the movement. But it's never been bad enough to make me want to risk taking the long ride down in a lift or to walk down dozens of floors." But does he have a go-bag? "I do, but not for that reason: it's in case of fire - that's a far more scary prospect." What's in his go-bag? "Two changes of clothes, a spare set of keys including car keys, information on e.g. credit card and passport replacement in case I don't have time to pick them up (but there are copies in the bag), some cash and a pair of shoes in case I have to run out barefoot. And one thing that's not in the bag: there's an external hard drive on my primary PC that all data is backed up to. That's hot-swappable USB so I can literally grab it and run."

Back in Phuket, at a beachside restaurant last night, the only sound was that of the incoming tide lapping its way up the beach as there, at least, another day in paradise came to a calm and peaceful end. And no one we spoke to had a go-bag ready.