China mobilizes to save lives & rebuild
The People’s Republic of China suffered an earthquake of immense proportions on May 12 in the southwest province of Sichuan. One week later, the toll of known dead had risen to more than 40,000 and was expected to keep growing. Some 3 million people have been left homeless.
The rescue and relief effort has been immediate and huge. By the eighth day, despite blocked roads, landslides and deadly aftershocks in the mountainous area, rescuers had reached all 1,044 villages hit by the quake. More than 150,000 soldiers were deployed in rescue and relief. Some 250,000 people were being treated for injuries, most caused by collapsed buildings.
After a week, people were still being pulled out of the rubble alive, including a 60-year-old woman rescued in Pengzhou 196 hours after the quake. She was conscious and rushed to a hospital by helicopter.
Communications, power, industry and mining were almost completely destroyed in the seven most damaged counties, according to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. Because the government plays a dominant role in China’s national economy, it has been able to quickly mobilize resources for the rebuilding of the area. It announced that after a week all affected cities and towns had working communications equipment, including 1,000 satellite phones distributed to the area.
Detailed reports on the many ways in which the government has been working to restore communications so survivors can contact their families and health workers can order needed supplies can be found at china.org.cn.
Soldiers and other rescue workers have made a heroic effort to reach remote villages. Nearly 170 of them have died in landslides caused by strong aftershocks.
There is little coverage of China’s great struggle in most Western media, which are quick to criticize the government for not being prepared. However, Chinese building codes for the area had been based on an assessment of earthquake risk “considered equivalent to that of the Global Hazard Seismic Assessment Program, a U.N.-endorsed project designed to reduce the toll from natural hazards,” wrote the Britain-based magazine New Scientist on May 13. “GHSAP predicted Sichuan had a 10 percent risk in 50 years of experiencing an earthquake that would cause a peak ground acceleration of 1.6 m/s squared—which is at the mid-level of extremity.”
Instead, said Hong Hao, a civil engineer at the University of Western Australia in Perth, this earthquake “far exceeded that, perhaps by a factor of five. By some estimates at its epicenter, the energy released would have been equivalent to 300 to 400 Hiroshima atomic bombs.”
Although no one had expected a quake of this extreme intensity, the Chinese government moved very swiftly and decisively to save lives among those who survived the disaster.
Within two hours, Premier Wen Jiabao was put in charge of disaster relief and had boarded a plane to Sichuan. By the following day, even as drenching rain was falling over the area, thousands of soldiers, police, firefighters and other relief workers were already trying to open up blocked roads, repair bridges and dig people out of collapsed buildings.
The army started to parachute soldiers and supplies into the worst hit areas as others were still hiking in on foot. By midnight of the second day, “The first rescue team of about 800 soldiers forced its way into the epicenter Wenchuan amid heavy rain and rescue operations began.” (china.org.cn)
All over China, people are responding to the Communist Party’s call for support with money and other aid. Some $2 billion has already been sent in money and supplies to the devastated area. One week after the quake struck, the whole country stopped work for 3 minutes to honor the victims.
Chinese and international scientists now say the earthquake reached 8.0 on the Richter scale. On this scale, one full point represents a tenfold increase in magnitude. By comparison, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the most destructive ever to shake the U.S. (excluding Alaska and Hawaii), was 7.8 and took about 3,000 lives.
The contrast between the handling of this earthquake and the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is stark. China is still a developing country. There was no advance warning of a natural disaster on the scale of this quake. Yet it was able to mobilize its resources within hours to provide relief to the survivors.
In the wealthy United States, the Army Corps of Engineers itself in a report a year earlier had predicted the levees above New Orleans could fail and the city be inundated if it were hit by a strong hurricane. Yet little had been done. As Katrina came barreling through the Gulf, meteorologists informed the federal government and “homeland security” of the danger. They were told all necessary preparations had been made.
After disaster struck, the levees broke and 80 percent of the city flooded. A million people had evacuated the area based on the storm warnings, but many poor and elderly remained.
Some 25,000, the majority African-American, took refuge at the Astrodome only to run out of water, food and working sanitary facilities as days went by and temperatures soared. Others languished on elevated highways and bridges, or were trapped in their attics as their homes flooded. At least 1,500 people died from drowning, dehydration and lack of food or even a raft to get to higher ground. Corpses remained in the fetid water for weeks.
It took President George W. Bush two days after the levees broke to cut short his vacation in Crawford, Texas, and fly over the area in a helicopter. Vice President Dick Cheney took four days to come back from his vacation, even as a horrified world watched the tragedy unfold hour by hour.
Photos of the troops dispatched to New Orleans show them patrolling the city armed with assault rifles and handguns to stop “looters”—often just people seeking food and water after days without services.
In the many pictures showing the disaster in China to be found at Yahoo’s photo gallery, taken by a wide variety of sources, none of the soldiers or other rescue workers is armed.
One photo from China shows a rescue worker planting China’s red flag atop a heap of rubble as his exhausted comrades sit below. It is a reminder that, despite the inroads of capitalism in their market economy, millions of Chinese feel united behind a cause—the betterment of all their people—that inspired a socialist revolution in their country just two generations ago.
As a time of great trial for the world draws nearer with the consequences of global warming, it is just this spirit of collective action that will be needed everywhere.