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Why Tuesday's earthquake in Taiwan was so much less destructive than the one in 1999

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now to the earthquake that just rocked Taiwan. It was a big one - 7.4 magnitude. The quake killed nine people that we know of. It injured hundreds. It damaged buildings. But compare that to the earthquake that hit Taiwan in 1999. That one killed more than 2,000 and caused billions in damage. Here to help explain why yesterday's quake seems to have been so much less destructive is Kit Miyamoto. He's CEO and humanitarian coordinator of Miyamoto International. That's a global engineering and humanitarian organization. Welcome.

KIT MIYAMOTO: Thanks so much.

KELLY: Although Taiwan has done a lot to better prepare itself since the big quake in 1999, what have they done and what has worked that you can tell?

MIYAMOTO: Obviously, the building code changed for the last 20 years a lot and also enforcement, such as the construction inspections and stuff like that. That made huge differences.

KELLY: Yeah. Just on the specific question of buildings, what can be done to build them so that they don't collapse, so that they sway, the purpose of, you know, preventing damage but obviously, even more importantly, saving human life - can you give me some specifics in terms of what has changed in the last couple decades?

MIYAMOTO: So just the older concrete structures were - it's dangerous. The reason is the way the reinforcement is built is once the earthquake motion - big earthquake, it happens, it - essentially, it explodes. That's why it's so dangerous. But modern construction - way the reinforcement that, like, hooks around the piers and columns that makes the buildings - you can actually move more, so that makes them much safer buildings.

KELLY: We've caught you today in Sacramento, I should share. How confident are you about how things would hold up if a comparably sized quake were to hit California today?

MIYAMOTO: So Taiwan's case - about 300- to 400,000 people affected, right? There is - you're looking at about 4 million people. So you're going to see the estimation is - you're going to see the fatality of 2,000 people, and you're going to see the probably 5- to 10% of buildings were not going to be - will be damaged completely. And that's - but we have an issue with the fire after earthquake, which Taiwan doesn't have that because buildings are made of concrete mainly in Taiwan. But in California, it's made of wood. So the fire after earthquake will be big deal in both, you know, upcoming San Francisco and LA earthquakes.

KELLY: It sounds - it's obviously strange to describe any event in which people died as a success story, and I don't mean to sound insensitive in any way. But it sounds as though what happened in Taiwan with this earthquake yesterday, it could have been a lot worse and that steps that have been made to earthquake-proof that island in the last couple decades have been successful, that there's some lessons learned here.

MIYAMOTO: Most definitely, most definitely. I think building code changes and enforcement and also with seismic strengthening over the older concrete or mainstream structures, which they did a lot of that. And that made a huge impact in this - yesterday's earthquake.

KELLY: Kit Miyamoto is CEO and humanitarian coordinator of Miyamoto International. Thank you so much.

MIYAMOTO: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHYGIRL SONG, "HEAVEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.