Living with disaster: Unshakable courage after a deadly quake

By Jamie Morton

China's Sichuan Province has made a remarkable recovery from the catastrophic 2008 earthquake that killed tens of thousands and shook towns to the ground.

Liu Zhihong, mayor of Yingxiu, stands among the ruins of the Xuankou Middle School.
Liu Zhihong, mayor of Yingxiu, stands among the ruins of the Xuankou Middle School.

'It's important to remind people how fragile life is," says the keeper of a food stall a few metres from the ghostly ruins of Xuankou Middle School.

These days, the school in Yingxiu, in the heart of Western China's mountainous Sichuan Province, resembles a concrete shipwreck, half-sunken into the earth.

It is a mess of masonry, pancaked building blocks, blown-out windows, twisted steel, crumbled facades and ugly fissures now overgrown with bushes and creepers.

"We hurry, but we should learn to be relaxed, because who knows what can happen," the woman tells the Herald through a translator.

"In a moment, 55 people lost their lives."

Six thousand, five hundred and sixty-six people were killed in this remote factory town in Wenchuan County.

And nearly 70,000 died across the wider area. A further 18,000 people went missing and 370,000 were injured.

At this particular school, 43 children, eight teachers, two staff members and two family members were crushed to death just before 2.30pm local time on May 12, 2008.

Ten reinforced concrete frame buildings, including three classroom buildings, one office building, five residential or dormitory buildings and one dining building did not stand a chance against the force of an 8.0 magnitude earthquake beneath Yingxiu.
One of the school's surviving staff members reportedly slept outside the grounds for days after the collapse, traumatised and inconsolable.

The site's remains, the grim backdrop to a memorial lined with hundreds of yellow chrysanthemums, now forms the centrepiece of the Wenchuan Earthquake Relic Park.

"It's quite important to preserve this place, just to tell people how important life is ... and to show respect for those who died there," said the stallholder, a graduate of the ruined school.

The earthquake, which struck along the steep eastern margin of the Tibet Plateau, had a shallow focal depth of just 14km and triggered thousands of aftershocks that were felt for months and killed more.

Photo / AP
Photo / AP

The intense thrusts forced powerful ruptures extending up to 300km as the full energy of the earthquake was released in 80 violent seconds.

By comparison, the September 2010 Canterbury earthquake lasted half as long, while the February 2011 quake that killed 185 people when it struck at a relatively shallow depth beneath Christchurch was 10 seconds long.

It was China's strongest quake for more than 50 years, its deadliest in four decades, and with 500 million damaged structures and a bill of $206 billion, it stood among its costliest.

Landslides roared down mountainsides, causing nearly a quarter of the deaths and burying infrastructure and parts of towns or villages.

More than 40 people died in the province's regional capital of Chengdu, a smog-smothered city of 14 million, but it was relatively small towns in the mountains and valleys that took the brunt.

Beichuan, with a population of 30,000, was the worst hit.

One thousand students at the valley town's high school were crushed to death and the massive devastation has virtually wiped the town off the map.

No one was left there when a nearby dam gave way and flooded the ruins, which remain as a memorial.

In the historic town of Dujiangyan, 10km from the epicentre, thousands died when schools, hospitals, offices and homes collapsed.

Hanwang, population 50,000, also had to be abandoned.

When a New Zealand fact-finding team visited Yingxiu, the town closest to the epicentre, a year after the quake, they found it totally devastated. Up to 1000 bodies of those pulled from the rubble were buried in a mass grave on a hillside overlooking the now rebuilt town.

Xin He, of the Beijing-based Caixin Media Company, was one of the first journalists to reach the town.

Reading over the names of the dead on a plaque on the mass grave brought back the scenes of chaos and sorrow he witnessed.

"It was difficult to see, but as a journalist, that's your work, you have to do it."

He recalled a grandfather's desperation to save the life of his infant grandchild, its mother lost in the debris.

Army personnel refused to evacuate the crying baby, who was hungry and needed feeding, and its grandfather had to wave a knife at them before they evacuated it on a helicopter.

The child survived, but many did not.

"It was a tragedy."

The new Yingxiu is a very different place. More than 1.7 billion yuan from central and provincial governments has been spent on the town's rebirth.

Its population today is only 1000 fewer than the number of people who perished, yet the township bustles thanks to its newfound tourism status.

About 40 restaurants and dozens of small hotels have sprouted up in brightly coloured buildings built to withstand an earthquake of 8 or 9 magnitude.

To add confidence, authorities have put on display the new strengthening technology used within each structure.

Building codes and materials had been bolstered everywhere as a result of the earthquake, which had left authorities with a "huge" disaster area, said Zhou Ji Xiang, director general of the Sichuan People's Government Information Office.

In New Zealand terms, the scale was inconceivable: a total of 46 million people had been affected; authorities had to provide shelter for 8.5 million families, and 12 million people lost their homes.

Sichuan's recovery over the past five years, Mr Xiang said, had been described by the international community as "one of the miracles in human history".

Homes had been renovated for 5.4 million families, or 12 million residents, and about 200,000 people in devastated rural areas had been relocated.

New jobs had been created for 1.7 million people.

Much was yet to be done to help the poorest victims of the earthquake, along with the thousands who had since fallen into poverty - the rate had risen from 11 to 34 per cent because of the disaster.

This meant the delivery of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of grain and food, and millions of yuan in monetary support for low income families.

More than 7000 schools were estimated to have collapsed in the earthquake, killing about 5000 students. This led to widespread claims of corruption among officials alleged to have pocketed money designated for building materials.

But these so-called "tofu-dreg schoolhouses" had been replaced with nearly 3000 schools rebuilt or renovated to high standards, Mr Xiang said.

A staggering 865 billion yuan - about four times the cost of the Christchurch rebuild - was required for reconstruction and had to be gathered through government cost-cutting, banks, bonds, fundraising and central government.

Mr Xiang said people had even been encouraged to put in their own effort towards reconstruction of homes to save on labour costs.

Buildings had been reconstructed to strict standards that were now the highest in the country, he said, after experts and engineers had developed tough new codes requiring quality control of material and building techniques.

And effort had been made to boost auditing and investigation of "suspicious activity" during rebuild programmes.

All new development has also been moved outside the province's "seismic belt" of fault zones.

Meanwhile, one of the world's leading earthquake scientists has developed technology he believes could save thousands of lives in future events.

Dr Tun Wang established the Institute of Care-life in the aftermath of the disaster and set about establishing the largest earthquake warning system in the world.

The system makes up a dense network of monitoring stations, roughly 15km apart, spread across 10 provinces and over 540,000sq km - an area twice the size of New Zealand.

Dr Wang said the system could pick up large quakes as early as 25 seconds beforehand, instantly sending to cellphones, computers and televisions messages complete with the quake's estimated intensity, location and arrival time.

The system has already been tested by more than 1500 quakes - four of them destructive - and so far, no quakes measuring more than 2.7 in magnitude has been missed.

It was estimated that if the system had been in place in May 12, 2008, between 20,000 and 30,000 victims might have been spared.

"A few seconds is a lot - you can save a lot of lives," said Dr Wang.

His team were developing alert devices for sale to schools and hospitals and he hoped the system would eventually be rolled out in other quake-prone countries.

Japan and Mexico were the only other nations with systems in place and Indonesia had recently signed on to install 200 sensors in the West Sumatra region.

Dr Wang saw New Zealand as a logical option. "Even though the quality of buildings is good, New Zealand still needs an early-warning system."

Back in Yingxiu, the town's mayor, Liu Zhihong, looked into the broken remains of Xuankou Middle School and saw a reason for such resilience.

"It means a lot, not just for the town, but for the whole country, for everyone," he said.

"It means we should all work together and fight together against the threat of natural disasters."


The series

As a fellow of the United States-based East-West Center, Herald science reporter Jamie Morton travelled to China, New York and Japan to investigate how those countries had responded to their recent natural disasters.

The series aims to highlight how decision-makers, scientists and victims around the world coped with disasters, and why these disasters remain directly relevant to every New Zealander.

The series concludes with a look at our own risk profile - and what we have learned since the first devastating quake hit Canterbury.

Today: China's fight against earthquakes
Tomorrow: New York after Sandy
Wednesday: Japan's tragic lesson
Thursday: Tohoku: life in the aftermath
Friday: New Zealand: living with disaster

- NZ Herald

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