After quakes, Gyeongju designated a ‘disaster zone’

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After quakes, Gyeongju designated a ‘disaster zone’

The government decided Wednesday to designate Gyeongju, a Unesco World Heritage site in North Gyeongsang, as a “special disaster zone” to offer necessary financial and public assistance to recover from the recent series of powerful earthquakes.

The city, located about 370 kilometers (230 miles) southeast of Seoul, was hit by two large earthquakes of magnitudes 5.1 and 5.8 on Sept. 12, setting off tremors across the nation. The main quake was the largest Korea has seen since 1978. Since then, more than 400 aftershocks, including a 3.5-magnitude tremor on Wednesday and a 4.5-magnitude quake on Monday, were reported in the city and nearby areas.

The Park Geun-hye cabinet, Blue House and the ruling Saenuri Party held a high-level meeting on Wednesday and agreed to declare Gyeongju as a special disaster zone, Rep. Kim Gwang-lim, chief policymaker of the ruling party, said. The designation could be announced as early as the end of the day.

A special disaster zone is declared if a disaster is too serious to be handled by local government authorities. It is designated at the request of the minister of public safety and security and confirmed by the president.

The designation requires at least 7.5 billion won ($6.69 million) of damage, and the Ministry of Public Safety and Security already said Tuesday that Gyeongju’s damage from the series of earthquakes is expected to be larger than this, based on preliminary surveys and victims’ reports.

After being designated a special disaster zone, Gyeongju will receive the restoration expenses from the central government. Victims will also be exempt from paying taxes and utility bills.

The special disaster zone was first declared after the Sampoong Department Store collapsed in 1995. Since then, the government has designated several disasters, including the massive mountain fires along the East Coast in 2000 and the Sewol ferry sinking in 2014, as such.

The government also decided to improve the current disaster warning system to attempt to match that of Japan. Under the new system, the public is supposed to receive messages within 10 seconds of a disaster.

Public outrage boiled over after the Ministry of Public Safety and Security’s warning system failed in the aftermath of the initial quakes on Sept. 12. The ministry’s system, intended to send disaster warning messages to the public via mobile phone messages, remained silent. Its homepage was also down for more than two hours after the earthquakes and no information was posted on its Facebook page.

The Korea Meteorological Administration typically sends messages to the general public through the Ministry of Public Safety and Security, but the weather body will send messages directly to the people under the improved system, the government decided.

The government and the ruling party also agreed to a complete review of earthquake countermeasures.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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