TAICHUNG, Taiwan -- As Taiwan tallies the lives lost and billions of dollars in damage wrought by Tuesday's earthquake, engineers are blaming poor design and shoddy construction for the collapse of many buildings -- both old and new -- that toppled like dominoes.
But the earthquake has been a warning for this densely populated island. Had the temblor been centered 50 miles closer to the capital, Taipei, rather than in the less-populated, mountainous interior 120 miles away, the death toll -- instead of being about 2,000 -- could have mounted into the hundreds of thousands and crippled the island, earthquake experts say.
"I believe the whole country would be down," said Jenn Shin Hwang, division head of the National Center for Research on Earthquake Engineering in Taipei.
Such a prospect has led to some heavy soul-searching by the government and the building industry about reforms. Previously, the island had been complacent about its vulnerability to large quakes, since in recent memory, Taiwan has had only small quakes centered off the coast that have done little damage.
Prosecutors began to get tougher last week, arresting a contractor who built three buildings that collapsed in Toului, burying 100 people. The buildings were reported to have been made with substandard steel rods, and crumpled vegetable oil cans are said to have been substituted for bricks. Poor-quality construction is "a big problem," said James Buu, a Justice Ministry spokesman. "The contractor didn't stick to the re- quirements and replaced concrete with other [materials]."
Taiwan's overall construction quality is more advanced than in Turkey, where an estimated 17,000 people were killed in last month's earthquake. Most of Taiwan's buildings are made of steel and concrete to withstand the typhoons that batter the country. In addition, Taiwan adopted two years ago earthquake engineering codes as stringent as those in the United States and Japan.
But many buildings were constructed before those codes were adopted, and many contain design flaws and shoddy construction, building experts say.
"The government requests reviews, but in actuality, they don't have the ability to do this type of work," said Wu Mon Teh, president of the Taiwan Structural Engineers Association.
Residents of Tali, where at least a half-dozen similar-looking 10- to 12-story apartment buildings said to be about a decade old tipped over like a house of cards, blame the government for failing to enforce codes.
Sun Hse Ping, whose 19-year-old daughter was trapped in a building and died, said, "I want the world to know that the Taiwan government may be famous for its exports, but the most important things -- the rescue of its people and the quality of its construction -- are so bad, they cost people's lives."