Napier delegation dives for cover

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On the day before they were due to leave China after a goodwill visit, Napier Mayor Barbara Arnott and four city councillors found themselves clambering under a restaurant table as an earthquake shook the Sichuan region.

The timing and irony was not lost on the group as they were visiting the city of Mianyang at the time.

It was the city a delegation from the Napier and Hastings councils had travelled to in July 2008 after a similar goodwill and advisory visit in the wake of a devastating 7.9 magnitude earthquake which had struck the region three months earlier and claimed about 100,000 lives.

While last Saturday's 7.0 earthquake was not as severe it did leave 180 dead and more than 10,000 injured.

Like the previous earthquake it struck in hill country in the Sichuan region and caused panic among the Chinese hosts and others in the restaurant - although the Napier group, while rattled, did "all the right things" Mrs Arnott said.

"We were having breakfast when it started and I thought 'uh oh, this is pretty bad."

Someone cried out "earthquake!" and the response from Mrs Arnott and councillors Tony Jeffery, Bill Dalton, Rob Lutter and Maxine Boag and their partners was to get under the table.

"But all our Chinese colleagues ran outside."

She said that response was a stark illustration of how while schools had developed drills and preparations in the wake of the 2008 tragedy few adults had.

"They were just not prepared."

Mrs Arnott said it was ironic that earthquake recovery and rebuilding were a focus of the visit to China.

She said the earthquake felt similar to the most severe she had experienced in Napier.

"The noise was dreadful - it was rolling and shaking."

It went for about 40 seconds and when everything settled down the group went outside, but saw no major damage.

However, two hours later, when they arrived in Chengdu and closer to hillside areas, that they saw damage.

"It was then we heard that people had been killed."

For their guide and interpreter Meizhu Chen, who has been living in Napier since the 2008 earthquake, it was a difficult time as her parents and grandparents still live in the region.

But unlike in 2008, when both sets of her grandparents lost their homes, this time they were not affected.

One thing which deeply impressed the group was the way the Chinese agencies responded to such disasters.

Mrs Arnott said the rebuilding since the 2008 earthquake had been "phenomenal".

The city of Beichuan, which was levelled by the quake and subsequent landslides, which buried 8000 people, had been restored but only as a memorial site. The new Beichuan city, now hosting 35,000 people, had been built from scratch.

The delegation spent 10 days in China and Japan visiting sister cities Lianyangang and Tomakomai to further strengthen business, cultural and friendship bonds.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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