Gyeongju To Be Classified as a 'Disaster Zone'

David Song, Sept. 21, 2016, 10:46 a.m.


The government and ruling Saenuri Party decided Wednesday to designate quake-stricken Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, a special disaster zone as the historic city suffered from the country’s strongest quake on record last week and more than 400 weaker aftershocks since. 

The decision came as South Korea’s presidential office, the prime minister, and ruling Saenuri Party held high-level talks Wednesday to discuss measures to deal with the string of quakes that have rattled the southeastern part of the country. 

The KMA plans to hold a news briefing on the interim results of analysis on the nation’s natural disaster warning system and what could have caused the string of earthquakes. 

On Sept. 19, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake jolted Gyeongju, located some 370 kilometers southeast of Seoul, making it the strongest ever recorded by the Korea Meteorological Administration for the Korean Peninsula. 

A 3.5 magnitude earthquake struck Gyeongju on Wednesday morning, two days after a magnitude 4.5 quake shook the nation Monday night. The tremor was detected at 11:53 a.m., with the epicenter some 10 kilometers southwest of Gyeongju, according to the KMA. 

Fire departments in Daegu, Ulsan and North Gyeongsang Province said that they had received hundreds of emergency calls reporting tremors when the quake took place. No major fatalities or damage was reported, authorities said.

Among a total of 412 aftershocks recorded as of Wednesday afternoon since the Sept. 12 quake, most were assessed to be weaker than magnitude 3. Only two aftershocks recorded a magnitude of between 4 and 5, while 15 tremors have ranged from 3 to 4. 

A city is designated as a special disaster zone after receiving approval from the president when its public facilities are damaged due to large-scale natural disasters or accidents and when municipalities are in need of financial support from the central government. 

If Gyeongju is declared a special disaster zone, it will receive most of the financial support needed to restore the area and its residents will receive tax benefits and cuts in utility bills. 

The government and the ruling party also agreed to improve an alert message system in the case of natural disaster so that warning messages can be sent to the public within 10 seconds of a disaster striking the country. Currently, the weather agency sends mobile alert messages in times of natural disasters after going through the Ministry of Public Safety and Security.

 

The officials also decided to conduct a comprehensive review of the nation’s plan to deal with earthquakes and assign greater budget to revise relevant acts and install more seismic monitors in the upcoming regular session at the parliament. 

They will also form a task force -- consisting of mental therapists, counsellors and doctors -- to help residents from the quake-hit city overcome post-traumatic stress disorder, authorities said. 

The Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs said Wednesday that it would provide Gyeongju with 2 billion won ($1.8 million) in special subsidies. The money will be used to conduct projects to restore damaged roads, public facilities and pavements.

The seismic activity this year seems to be much greater than in past years. Last year, the country saw 44 quakes. There were 49 in 2014, 93 in 2013 and 56 in 2012. The second-biggest quake on the Korean Peninsula took place in 1980, when a 5.3 magnitude tremor hit North Korea. 

The KMA said it would be difficult to confirm when the aftershocks would end, warning the public to keep up with news updates. It did not rule out the possibility of more aftershocks in the coming weeks. 

Rival parties continued to blast the government for what they saw as its inability to cope with quakes during the parliamentary meeting on Wednesday. They criticized the Public Safety Ministry and Ministry of the Interior for failing to lay out comprehensive measures to handle natural disasters and for failing to properly notify the public of how to respond in cases of emergencies.

“The most fundamental problem is that the public have fears about the government’s handling of safety-related issues,” said Rep. Park Sun-ja of the ruling Saenuri Party. “The Interior Ministry and the Public Safety Ministry should have distributed manuals on how to respond to quakes and advertised them to the public, but nothing has been done. The public don’t feel protected by the government.”

Rep. Lee Je-jeong of The Minjoo Party of Korea also echoed similar concerns. 

“Even though quakes cannot be accurately predicted, the government’s inability to confirm facts is making the public nervous. What is more fearful is not quakes, but the attitudes of the ministers of the relevant ministries,” Lee said. 

When the 3.5 magnitude aftershock jolted the country Wednesday, warning messages were sent to the public some 10 minutes after residents felt the shaking. on Monday night, the website of the Public Safety Ministry as well as the weather agency, which provide information on how to evacuate in cases of quakes, also crashed due to heavy traffic. 

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