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Taiwan Holds Day of Mourning for Earthquake Victims

FILE - A member of rescue teams stands by as heavy excavation machinery continues to dig through the rubble of a collapsed building complex in Tainan, Taiwan, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016.

Taiwan’s government has declared a day of mourning for the 116 people who died in an earthquake just over a week ago, as officials vow to step up inspections of structures around the island.

The office of Premier Chang San-cheng ordered flags be flown at half-staff at all government offices and schools Monday in tribute to the people who died February 6 in the southern Taiwan city of Tainan.

A 6.4-magnitude earthquake that morning caused a giant housing complex to fall, killing all but two of those who died from the quake. Another 550 were injured.

Panic has been followed by a search for blame in Tainan as prosecutors explore who might have caused construction problems at the collapsed housing complex. The earthquake magnitude was only 5.0 in Tainan, and most structures on the island can withstand that amount of shaking.

Officials called off search and rescue work Sunday after recovering the final bodies in the housing estate’s rubble. The death toll was Taiwan’s worst from an earthquake since 1999. That year a 7.6 magnitude quake killed more than 2,300 people.

George Hou, a mass communications lecturer at I-Shou University in Taiwan, said the day of mourning will send a welcome signal but that Taiwanese also expect more substantive follow-up measures.

“At least this action expresses an attitude that they carry this event in their hearts,” said Hou, whose university in the southern city Kaohsiung is located near the recent quake epicenter. “The next phase of care taking work will be a substantive one - how they can make victims feel it’s not only emblematic.”

Government officials have ordered all schools in Taiwan, as well as other older buildings, be checked for earthquake safety. As another follow-up move, they will release the results of a study on soil liquefaction that could affect buildings during quakes.

Taiwan’s central government will not require that every home be checked, but expects this month’s earthquake will trigger new efforts to regulate construction. It also urges cities and counties to check local structures. About 2,000 schools have already been retrofitted for quake safety.

Structures built before 1970 are at the most risk, followed by those built between 1970 and the quake of 1999. After that year, construction standards became more rigorous.

The National Science & Technology Center for Disaster Reduction says ground level units in apartment buildings are particularly at risk because some lack strong walls and cautions against the removal of any beams in remodeling. Most urban Taiwanese live in multi-level apartment blocks and new owners usually remodel their units.

“Regarding checks on the earthquake resistance and existing damage to homes, as well as soil liquefaction, within a month we will release the results of a soil study, as well as follow-up measures to be taken,” the premier’s spokesman Sun Lih-chyun says.

“A soil movement study is already in place, but the premier believes that to release that without follow-up measures would cause panic,” he said.