Responding to disaster
May 12th 2008 | BEIJING
An earthquake kills several thousand people in China, as authorities try to react fast
ANOTHER natural disaster in another Asian country claims many thousand lives. But the response of China’s government to an earthquake that struck the central Sichuan province on the afternoon of Monday May 12th appears to be strikingly different to that of Myanmar’s brutal regime after its cyclone earlier this month. News of the cyclone took several days to trickle out from Myanmar, where the government’s response has been desperately inadequate. In contrast, details of China’s earthquake are being spread quickly, and the official response has so far been unusually open.
Within 12 hours of the massive earthquake in China, the authorities reported that nearly 9,000 people had been killed. They also gave warning that casualty figures are likely to rise. The quake struck at 14:28 local time on Monday, when children were at school and many workers were in their offices and factories. The epicentre was in Wenchuan County, some 90km northwest of the provincial capital of Chengdu.
Measured at a magnitude of 7.8 by Chinese authorities and at 7.9 by the United States Geological Survey, the earthquake flattened schools and other buildings, interrupted transport, water and telecommunications services, and rattled tall buildings in many of China's largest cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, several hundred kilometres away. Tremors registering at a magnitude of 3.9 were felt in Beijing, provoking frantic evacuations at office towers throughout the city.
China’s central government responded promptly. President Hu Jintao has called for an “all-out” effort to rescue survivors and to provide for the injured. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao flew to Sichuan within hours of the earthquake, telling state-run media en route that China faced “a major disaster” and calling for “calm” and “courage”. Coming from a government that usually strives to downplay bad news, this is a clear indication of a truly dire situation.
According to state media, Chinese army units are being deployed to assist with relief work (again in contrast to the ineffective army in Burma). One immediate priority was a site in Juyuan Township, about 100km from the epicentre, where 900 youths were thought to be buried under the rubble of their collapsed three-storey school. Chinese media said cranes were excavating the sites as children cried for help from beneath the detritus and as ambulances waited together with frantic parents.
China's official Xinhua News Agency reported 8,533 deaths in Sichuan alone, as well as scores more deaths in neighbouring provinces. In Sichuan's Beichuan County, some 80% of buildings were reported to have collapsed. Damage at a chemical plant was also reported, with hundreds of people buried and tonnes of poisonous liquid ammonia released. Train and air services into Chengdu and surrounding areas have been badly disrupted. Telephone services, both fixed line and wireless, have also been damaged.
As Beijing prepares to host the summer Olympic Games in less than three months, officials were quick to report that the city's dozens of Olympic venues were built to withstand earthquakes and that none had suffered damage. Authorities also said that no damage was observed at the massive Three Gorges Dam, located on the Yangtze River, several hundred kilometres east of the epicentre. That is just as well. Holding back an enormous reservoir, the dam was built in the face of strong opposition from critics who gave warning, among other things, that it would be vulnerable to earthquake damage that might cause disastrous floods.
China has moved quickly to mobilise, but has yet to respond to offers of foreign aid from the governments of Japan, the Czech Republic and others. Given the magnitude of the disaster, and the likely increase in the death toll, China certainly faces further tests on the efficacy of its response. It may also be troubled by unsettling questions about its level of pre-earthquake preparedness. It is one thing to build dams and Olympic venues to proper standards, but with so many other buildings collapsing particular scrutiny may fall on China's system for setting and enforcing construction codes in earthquake-prone zones such as Sichuan.