The smartphone vibrates along with the emergency alarm, and the owner strings up his nerves. As soon as he brings the screen before his eyes and realizes that the message is only a warning about the cold wave, he lets out a sigh in relief and finally feels the knot of tension in his stomach untie. This is the everyday life of locals living in Pohang, where the earthquake has gripped the entire region in fear.
On February 11, a 4.6 magnitude earthquake struck the city of Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province. It was only three months since the city was hit by the 5.4 magnitude earthquake in November last year, the nation’s second-strongest quake on record. As a country that rarely experiences tremors, the November earthquake raised public safety concerns, ultimately causing the Ministry of Education to postpone the country’s national university entrance examination by a week.
Sowing Greater Fears
The recent Pohang quake occurred at 5:03 A.M., nine kilometers belowground, and the shake was felt throughout the nation, even reaching Seoul. Roughly 1,400 calls reporting tremors were received at fire stations in Seoul. In the Pohang region, twenty-two people were injured and were immediately sent to the hospital, but none were faced with life-threatening injuries. As of February 24, it was reported that 403 victims from 187 households were forced to live in tents inside the Heungbu gymnasium. Damage costs hit a record 54.18 billion won, and restoration costs amounted to 143.92 billion won. With so many people put out on the streets because of the February quake, seeds of a greater fear have been sown for the citizens.
After the earthquake, residents were evacuated and the Pohang municipal authority inspected buildings throughout the city to check for serious damage. They assessed the extent of the damage and judged whether residents should be allowed to return home. However, the public expressed great dissatisfaction over how the procedure was conducted. The standard of judgment was reported to be very ambiguous, with buildings labeled as either “dangerous,” “usable” or “restricted.” This caused confusion among residents as to whether they were still allowed into “restricted” buildings.
▲ Provided by Arirang News A news report about an earthquake in Pohang
Chasing the Tail or Delivering the Goods?
On November 15, 2017, emergency alarms were sent immediately 23 seconds after the 5.4 magnitude earthquake. The government announced its ambitions to reduce the time it takes to send the message by seven seconds within this year. However, during the recent earthquake, the Ministry of Public Administration and Security sent emergency alarms at 5:10 A.M., which was seven minutes after the occurrence. The Korea Meteorological Administration (KMA) seismic analyst mentioned that the delay in the message was due to a systematic error.
Moreover, there have been growing public concerns regarding Korea’s lack of preparation in comparison to countries like Japan and the United States, which have experienced frequent natural disasters for years and have long-established systematic responses. Unlike both countries, Korea was believed to be a quake-free zone due to its geographic features; this widespread conception was what ultimately hindered the development of earthquake research for decades.
The KMA failing to fulfill its responsibility is one painful example of this. After the Pohang earthquake, it pinpointed a fault line seven kilometers away from the epicenter as the cause, sparking criticism for its lack of precision and dexterity in the field. The fault line map is one proposed remedy, which secures locations of quake-prone fault lines—useful in sending out warnings and preventing construction near danger zones. It should be noted that this project was born just last year in the wake of the Gyeongju earthquake. Although, out of fear, many call for swift progress, it is unreasonable to expect the team to yield results in only a few years. It took Japan twenty years to accomplish its fault line project.
▲ Earthquake debris
A Foot in the Door
Although an earthquake cannot be prevented, necessary steps could be taken to ensure safety by preventing damage and responding swiftly. Then what are the core measures that have been taken and what other steps could be taken?
Many public facilities still lack in seismic designs, school buildings being a typical example. According to the Korea Herald, less than 40 percent of schools nationwide were constructed to be resistant to earthquakes, resulting in “a total of 227 schools in the region and 2,165 private properties to have sustained severe cracks in the walls.” Intensive financial support is urgently required to provide a safer environment for children to study.
Furthermore, the current law regarding earthquake-proof building designs still comes up short in many aspects. As an example, some petrochemical facilities are not subject to earthquake-proof design. In the event of an earthquake, petrochemical complexes may not be able to withstand chemical reactions from dangerous materials, which could potentially lead to a great number of casualties. Thus, the government should proceed in making amends and taking preventative action.
Despite such shortcomings, there has been a series of positive changes as well. After last year’s earthquake, the North Gyeongsang Province set up a national unit to offer aid to the victims. The team is responsible for covering four major tasks, which include helping the affected areas, enhancing their capability to respond to earthquakes, rebuilding the affected areas and providing housing assistance to displaced residents. The agency further announced its intention to provide stable migration, psychological counseling, medical support, and trauma recovery systems to ensure the mental health of citizens, in hopes of creating an efficient disaster prevention team.
The recent series of tremors prove that Korea is no longer a safe haven from natural disasters. For decades, Korea was left with no advancement in fields of research; however, the tragic series of earthquakes marks the start for new changes and amendments to be made. Now it is time to shift from a responsive mode to proactive one. Rather than contenting oneself with wiping off spilt milk, the cup needs to be steadied; greater awareness and funding must be allocated towards research while the government and institutions prepare preventative responses to earthquakes.