Posted: Sat May 10, 2008 4:56 am Post subject: NATURAL DISASTERS
May 10, 2008
Death Comes Ashore
By AMITAV GHOSH
THE word “cyclone” was coined in Calcutta (now called Kolkata) in the 1840s by an eccentric Englishman named Henry Piddington. Inspired by the great British meteorologist William Reid, Piddington became one of the earliest storm-chasers, besotted with a phenomenon that he once likened to a “beautiful meteorite.” His elegant coinage was originally intended as a generic name for all revolving weather events, but is now applied mainly to the storms of the Indian Ocean region like Cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma with devastating effect last week.
Piddington was among the earliest to recognize that a cyclone wreaks most of its damage not through wind but through water, by means of the devastating wave that is known as a “storm surge.” In 1853, when the British colonial authorities were planning an elaborate new port on the outer edge of Bengal’s mangrove forests, he issued an unambiguous warning: “Everyone and everything must be prepared to see a day when, in the midst of the horrors of a hurricane, they will find a terrific mass of salt water rolling in ...” His warning was neglected and Port Canning was built, only to be obliterated by a cyclonic surge in 1867.
The phenomenon of the storm surge has been extensively researched since Piddington’s day, yet few public-response systems have drawn the obvious lesson. To this day, the warnings that accompany a storm’s approach typically say nothing about moving to high ground: their prescription is usually to seek shelter indoors. As a result people tend to hunker down in the strongest structure within reach — only to find themselves trapped when the surge comes sweeping through.
But even if they were fully warned, where would those people go? The delta regions of Burma and Bengal are flat and swampy with very few elevations. To move millions quickly is not an easy task even for a technologically advanced country, as Hurricane Katrina showed.
Yet for the rapidly growing countries that surround the Bay of Bengal there is an increasing urgency to find a way to protect themselves. They have experienced some of the world’s most devastating storms. The Hooghly cyclone of 1737, for example, almost erased the infant settlement of Calcutta and was once considered the worst disaster in human history: the surge that accompanied it is reckoned to have reached a height of 40 feet (as opposed to the 12-foot wave generated by Cyclone Nargis).
There are no reliable casualty estimates of that storm, but two other cyclones are known to have killed some 300,000 people each: the Buckerganj cyclone of 1876 and the Bhola cyclone of 1970, both in what is now Bangladesh. As recently as 1991, a storm surge killed more than 100,000 people in Bangladesh.
Nor are the energies of the Bay of Bengal exhausted by its all-too-frequent cyclones — there is also the extremely unstable fault line that produced the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, which took some 230,000 lives. If global warming does bring an increase in cyclonic activity there can be no doubt that the bay’s heavily populated coastline will be among the most vulnerable regions of the world.
Natural phenomena like tsunamis and cyclones have no respect for national boundaries — in fact, they follow trajectories that seem almost to mock the vanities of nation-states. Cyclone Nargis, for example, had it stayed on its original path, would very likely have hit either India or Bangladesh; it was only in the last stretch of her journey that she veered off toward the Irrawaddy Delta.
Nation-states tend to see their interests as being confined within their own borders. But the reality is that the people who live around the Bay of Bengal have a vital interest in common that they do not share with their compatriots in the hinterlands: they are joined by the furies (and let it be said also, the blessings) of that body of water. Clearly they have a common interest in working together to mitigate the effects of natural disasters. For example, by designing inexpensive, elevated shelters that are appropriate to the terrain; by cooperating to preserve the mangrove forests that are the best natural safeguards against surges; and by creating a joint rapid-response force familiar with the local conditions.
This would require these governments first to acknowledge a basic and ever-more evident truth of the human condition, which is that in dealing with nature’s fury, no nation is an island. This is where national pride gets in the way, for this acknowledgment requires a humility that does not come easily; a glaring example was President Bush’s rejection of the offers of foreign aid that poured in after Hurricane Katrina. It was as if the world’s generosity were an affront.
Recent experience has demonstrated in spectacular ways that rich, technologically advanced nations are not invulnerable to extreme weather. What has also been demonstrated, but more quietly, is that a nation need not be wealthy or technologically advanced to be well prepared for natural disasters.
A case in point is Mauritius, a small Indian Ocean island in a zone that meteorologists call a “cyclone factory.” The islanders have evolved a sophisticated system of precautions, combining a network of cyclone shelters with education (including regular drills), a good early warning system and mandatory closings of businesses and schools when a storm threatens. It’s been a remarkable success: Cyclone Gamede of 2007, a monster of a storm that set global meteorological records for rainfall, killed only two people on the island.
I happened to be in Mauritius when Hurricane Katrina struck. I still remember the open-mouthed disbelief with which people there watched the unfolding of the events in Louisiana. Mauritius is a country that has learned, through trial and experience, that early warnings are not enough — preparation also demands public education and political will. In an age when extreme weather events are clearly increasing in frequency, the world would do well to learn from it.
Amitav Ghosh is the author of the forthcoming novel “Sea of Poppies.”
BANGKOK - Myanmar's generals diverted manpower from the cyclone aid effort Saturday to oversee a controversial referendum on a new constitution, while more than a million victims of the tragedy desperately awaited rescue.
Critics say the referendum, which comes in the wake of the junta's grudging response to the devastation of cyclone Nargis, will only serve to further cement the military's hold on power.
To the xenophobic regime, getting the vote out in areas not affected by the cyclone appeared as important as getting clean water, food and shelter to the 1.5 million to two million of its citizens the United Nations now estimates were "severely affected" by Nargis.
The regime's leaders found time Saturday to distribute small quantities of foreign relief supplies. The generals appeared on TV handing out boxes on which, in a clumsy publicity stunt, they stamped their own names over those of the original donors.
In Thailand, Japan and Malaysia there were demonstrations protesting the junta's decision to go ahead with the referendum despite the cyclone.
"People are dying and they still want to go on with this artificial democracy," said Than Tun Aung, a refugee who led the protest in Kuala Lumpur.
State media list 23,335 people dead and 37,019 missing after a cyclone with winds more than 100 km/h and a 3.5-metre tidal wave struck last weekend. One senior U.S. diplomat has predicted that, given the delays in dispatching aid, the death toll could reach 100,000.
The UN's Richard Horsey said Saturday that aid has reached about half a million survivors so far.
Myanmar cleared two more UN aid flights to land Saturday and allowed three UN trucks carrying enough tents and materials to shelter 10,000 people to cross from Thailand. The trucks will take at least two days to reach the capital, Yangon. It is days more by road to the hard hit Irrawaddy Delta area.
India, which Myanmar considers a friend, delivered four transport planes of supplies and two shiploads of aid the generals have allowed to be delivered. Thailand sent one planeload of relief supplies.
The UN has appealed for $187 million in aid, even though it's not confident the food, water and tents will make it to those most in need because of the junta's reluctance to admit international relief workers.
Meanwhile, the international community is growing increasingly concerned about the impact the delays on the spread of disease in the worst-hit areas. The World Health Organization said "outbreaks of communicable diseases such as dengue and malaria are now a big concern."
"This is the second disaster," said Greg Beck of the International Rescue Committee. "First was the cyclone and the surge of water. The second will come if there is no access to food, water and shelter. They will start dying."
UNICEF, which has delivered some supplies in with the help of the Thai government, says it is "very concerned about the impact of bad water on the health of children" left stranded or orphaned, by the cyclone.
It said that UNICEF health specialists estimate "20 per cent of children in the worst affected areas already have diarrhea and cases of malaria have also been reported."
Meanwhile, there are local media reports that two child traffickers were arrested in the worst-hit Irrawaddy Delta region, where many children have been orphaned by the disaster, leaving them vulnerable to abuse.
Aileen McCabe - Asia Correspondent
Canwest News Service
Monday, May 12, 2008
A man rides a motorbike on a debris-covered road following an earthquake in Chengdu, Sichuan province May 12, 2008. A major earthquake measuring 7.8 Richter Scale jolted Wenchuan County of Sichuan province at 2:28 p.m. Beijing time (6:28 GMT) on Monday, Xinhua News Agency reported.
Local residents search for their belongings in the debris of a collapsed house after an earthquake in Dujiangyan, Sichuan province May 12, 2008.
SHANGHAI - A devastating earthquake in China's southwestern Sichuan province on Monday killed more than 8,500 people in that province alone, the official Xinhua news agency said Monday, citing information from the provincial government. At least 10,000 are feared injured following the most devastating quake to rock China in more than 30 years.
The news agency gave the figure in a brief dispatch, shortly after quoting national relief headquarters as saying more than 7,600 people had been confirmed killed in Sichuan.
The earthquake, which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, toppled eight schools and at least one hospital, state media said. At one high school, about 900 students were said to be buried in rubble. It hit in the early afternoon Monday, centred in Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County, in the mountainous Sichuan province of southwestern China, the state news agency said.
Most of the deaths and injuries occurred there as 80 per cent of the buildings collapsed. With a population of 161,000, about one in 10 residents is estimated to have been killed or injured in the quake.
Hundreds of people were buried under rubble in Shifang in Sichuan province, as several schools, factories and dormitories collapsed during the quake, according to state media reports. In Chongqing, a city of 10 million that is 360 kilometres away from the quake's centre, four primary school students were killed and 100 more injured when two schools collapsed.
The death toll in the region is expected to rise sharply as authorities and rescue teams make contact with the worst-hit areas, where phone lines have been cut off since the quake struck.
The quake is the worst to hit China since the 1976 Tangshan earthquake in northeastern China, where at least 240,000 people died.
Tremors from Monday's event were felt 1,500 kilometres away in the capital, Beijing, sending buildings swaying there and in the financial centre of Shanghai. Workers in those cities were evacuated.
In Shanghai, thousands were milling around in the plazas surrounding their office towers, enjoying the sunshine and not quite sure what was happening. China Mobile said more than 2,300 cell phone towers were knocked out by the tremors, temporarily breaking down communications.
The quake was felt as far afield as Taipei, Bangkok and Hanoi.
Deaths were also reported in neighbouring Gansu and Yunnan provinces.
Chinese President Hu Jintao called for an "all-out" rescue effort in Sichuan and Premier Wen Jiabao flew to the affected area to see the tragedy for himself.
He described the damage as "very severe."
The People's Liberation Army was dispatched to Wenchuan, the closest city to the quake and home to more than 111,000, to help deal with the aftermath.
The army is well trained to handle natural disasters: during typhoon season, the PLA is often called on to evacuate millions of flood victims.
In a heavily populated area, a 7.8-magnitude quake is capable of inflicting huge damage and loss of life.
The European Union's Global Disaster Alert and Co-ordination System said in a statement that "this earthquake has potentially a high humanitarian impact and the affected region has medium vulnerability to natural disasters."
The impact may be higher, the organization said, because the quake struck in the middle of a working day.
Experts say the quake was "shallow" - 10 kilometres below ground - which means the damage is likely to be greater.
The quake hit near Wolong Nature Reserve, China's main centre for research and breeding Giant Pandas, but there have been no reports of damage.
CREDIT: Khin Maung Win, Agence France-Presse, Getty Images
A cyclone survivor takes care of her child inside a broken hut in Kyauktan, southeast of Yangon, on Sunday. Cyclone Nargis has left at least 60,000 dead or missing and as many as two million more short of food, water and supplies. The UN warns the death toll could hit 150,000 if aid doesn't start flowing in.
Myanmar's military government leader Gen. Than Shwe casts his ballot at a polling station in the new capital Nay Pyi Taw, 400 kilometres north of Yangon on Saturday.
Myanmar may be on the brink of a second disaster, "potentially larger than the first," but this time self-inflicted.
More than a week after cyclone Nargis hit, the Myanmar government's continued refusal to allow more than a trickle of aid into the country and no experienced disaster relief workers has upped the chance of disease wiping out more people than the cyclone and the tidal surge that followed it.
The regime now says 28,458 are dead and 33,416 missing, but international agencies put the death toll much higher and the UN warned Sunday that it could hit 150,000 if aid doesn't start flowing soon.
Gordon Bacon, the International Rescue Committee emergency coordinator in Yangon, said his teams are starting to penetrate some of the areas worst hit by Nargis and they are finding villages where all the homes are destroyed and survivors who have had no clean water since May 2.
"With each passing day, we come closer to a massive health disaster and a second wave of deaths that is potentially larger than the first," Bacon said.
In Thailand, the IRC's regional director Greg Beck said: "Everything hinges on access. Unless there's a massive and fast infusion of aid, experts and supplies into the hardest-hit areas, there's going to be a tragedy at an unimaginable scale."
Until now, both governments and aid agencies have been excessively careful when they talked about the disaster in Myanmar. They obviously did not want to cause panic, but neither did they want to anger the country's paranoid regime while there is still hope of access to one of the world's most isolated countries.
By telephone from a hotel in Yangon where he has set-up temporary headquarters after Nargis destroyed his offices, Brian Agland, country director for CARE International, said his workers have been interviewing survivors who have collected in makeshift camps in the Irrawaddy Delta area and hearing repeated stories of villages of 400 or so people where only three or four people survived.
He said the survivors they are seeing are mostly adults, "a lot of the dead are children and elderly."
Agland said he is working with local staff who "don't have experience" to deal with this kind of disaster. "We definitely need the experts to be brought in."
He also said the aid supplies and food sitting on tarmacs and in warehouses around the region, waiting for clearance from the Myanmar junta, are needed now.
The World Food Program estimates that aid has reached only about one-quarter of the 1.5 to two million victims of the cyclone.
In the midst of this tragedy, Myanmar's generals held a referendum on a new constitution on Saturday and on Sunday celebrated an "overwhelming turnout."
The state-controlled news was full of the vote and pictures of the generals who insisted it go forward despite worldwide pleas to postpone it and concentrate on the crisis.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said that by today it should have seven aid flights in Myanmar, but distribution of its supplies is a major problem, particularly after its first "relief boat" sank Sunday when it ran into a submerged tree.
The federation's disaster manager Michael Annear said in a statement from Yangon that the sinking was "a big blow. Apart from the delay in getting aid to people we may now have to re-evaluate how we transport that aid."
The Red Cross had already identified the logistics of moving aid as "one of the keys to this evolving operation."
It said its logistics unit in Kuala Lumpur is working on the problem, but it has no experts on the ground to assess the situation.
Moreover, until Sunday, when Head of Delegation Bridget Gardener was allowed to travel to the Delta area to evaluate the situation, only local staff had been permitted to venture into the worst hit areas. International staff is confined to Yangon, the former Burmese capital, Rangoon.
Oxfam, which is probably the best equipped international agency to deal with the drinking water and sanitation problems which are posing the greatest health risks to the cyclone survivors, is not registered in Myanmar and has yet to receive permission to enter the country.
Chief executive Barbara Stocking told the BBC that Oxfam had supplies and experts ready to move in an instant if the generals would only relent.
"We are at huge risk of diseases spreading now," she said, "particularly dysentery and cholera."
The World Health Organization, which is on the ground but has yet to penetrate far into the worst disaster zones, says it is already seeing diarrhea and dengue fever and fears outbreaks of malaria and measles, which are both endemic in Myanmar.
It takes hundreds of millions of dollars over a period that often stretches to two or three years to deal with a disaster on the scale Myanmar suffered.
The United Nations has launched an immediate appeal for $187 million US for disaster relief and individual aid agencies around the world are also raising funds. But while governments and ordinary people are stepping up to donate, fund raising is not being made any easier by the junta's intransigence.
CARE Canada's Kieran Green said that donors are hesitant, given what is happening on the ground. "They are concerned their money will not get through," he said.
In other news on CNN, UN has asked for 755 million dollars to meet the Global Food Crisis.
So far U.S. has contributed $260 million (chairty begins at home, Bush! Americans are subsisting on canned foods; Public food pantries are empty and are frequented by middle class who cannot pay their bills);
Canda and other European countries have contributed $250 million,
and OPEC countries have contributed a measly $1.5 million. I read and re-read hoping it was 1.5 billion but it was 1.5 million. Majority of these OPEC countries are Islamic countries.
Here is the icing on the cake!. Last year, Saudi Arabia's oil revenue was $164 billion!
No wonder one of the Royal princes got a Diamond Studded car for his 36th birthday! While people around the world are dying of hunger, and natural disasters!
Saudis claim to be the caretakers of Islam! And also, they claim to be practicing the "pure Islam". May Allah help them.
In the Seerat conference Hazar Imam had predicted that Islamic countries will be very affluent in the days to come, but they should not forget their Islamic duty towards the less privileged and the unfortunate people.
So far I see only Hazar Imam and the Ismailis practicing their Islamic duty towards the poor people of the world. The rest of the Muslim world is still asleep and they are richer than the Ismailis.
On the other hand, Christian countries are joining us in every way possible to help the poor people of the world.
Cyclone Nargis casualties top 133,000
Agencies say only fraction of relief getting through
Aung Hla Tun
Saturday, May 17, 2008
CREDIT: AFP-Getty Images
Exhausted children suffering diarrhea sleep together to keep warm at a temporary shelter in a monastery on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar.
Torrential rain lashed survivors of cyclone Nargis on Friday as Myanmar's junta raised its toll sharply to more than 133,000 people dead or missing, putting the disaster on a par with a 1991 cyclone that killed 143,000 in neighboring Bangladesh.
In a shocking update to a count that had consistently lagged international aid agency estimates, state television said 77,738 people were dead and 55,917 missing after the May 2 storm in the military-ruled country formerly known as Burma.
Up to 2.5 million survivors are clinging to life in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta, with thousands of people lining roadsides to beg for help in the absence of large-scale government or foreign relief operations.
In the town of Kunyangon, 100 kilometres southwest of Yangon, men, women and children stood in the mud and rain, their hands clasped together in supplication to the occasional passing aid vehicle.
"The situation has worsened in just two days," one aid volunteer said as children mobbed his vehicle, reaching through the window for scraps of bread or clothing.
The generals insist their relief operations are running smoothly, justifying their refusal to allow major aid distribution by outside agencies and workers to victims of the cyclone, which flooded an area the size of Austria.
The junta issued an edict in state-run media saying legal action would be taken against anybody found hoarding or selling relief supplies, amid rumors of military units expropriating trucks of food, blankets and water.
Aid groups, including UN agencies, say only a fraction of the required relief is getting through and, unless the situation improves, thousands more lives are at risk.
Given the junta's ban on foreign journalists and restrictions on the movement of most international aid workers, independent assessment of the situation is difficult.
The United Nations said its top humanitarian official, John Holmes, would arrive in Myanmar on Sunday to try to establish contact with its reclusive generals, the latest face of 46 years of unbroken military rule.
"I understand that he's now scheduled to meet with the prime minister of Myanmar (Thein Sein) on Sunday," UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said in an interview on U.S. television.
UN spokeswoman Michele Montas said Holmes was carrying a third letter from Ban to the junta's senior general, Than Shwe, who has repeatedly ignored Ban's requests for a conversation.
Four U.S. Hercules cargo planes landed in Yangon on Friday and "two of the shipments were handed directly" to non-governmental organizations, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
He did not name the NGOs, but said there was progress because this was the first time Myanmar's government had not taken possession of some of the U.S. aid.
"We're planning four to five flights for both Saturday and Sunday and it is our hope that some of those shipments, again, will be handed over directly to international NGOs," he said.
CREDIT: Paula Bronstein, Getty Images
A woman is rescued Saturday after being trapped in a collapsed chemical factory for five days.
Rescue workers in China uncovered a small miracle on Saturday -- 33 people pulled to safety after being trapped for 119 hours under the debris from Monday's 7.9-magnitude earthquake.
The 33 were found in Beichuan, near the epicentre of the quake, Reuters reported.
Another earthquake shook Sichuan province on Saturday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The 6.1-magnitude earthquake, which followed scores of weaker aftershocks throughout the week, was nearly 80 kilometres deep and hit 80 kilometres west of Guangyuan.
The quake occurred as thousands of Chinese fled their homes on Saturday amid fears a lake could burst its banks, hampering rescue efforts.
Aid workers returned to Beichuan county, near the epicentre of the quake in Sichuan province, but many residents were too frightened to go home, worried about a lake formed when aftershocks triggered landslides that blocked a river.
"After briefly evacuating, rescue work returned to normal at Beichuan," an official website said, blaming the evacuation on a false alarm.
Despite that official line, a paramilitary officer told Reuters news agency the likelihood of the lake bursting its banks was "extremely big." The situation was "very dangerous because there are still tremors causing landslides that could damage the dam," said Luo Gang, a building worker who left the southeastern port city of Xiamen and rushed home to look for his missing fiancee.
Everywhere you go in the quake- affected areas of China there are fatigue-clad soldiers digging through the rubble for survivors, clearing roads, securing badly damaged buildings, dams and bridges, erecting shelters, handing out food and even directing traffic.
China has mobilized more than 130,000 troops to deal with the deadly earthquake in Sichuan province that has now left 28,881 dead and injured 198,347 people.
The soldiers, however, are just one part of the impressive rescue and relief operation that is in full swing six days after the earthquake ravaged southwestern Sichuan.
The majority of the soldiers are involved in immediate disaster relief, but even now planning has begun for the medium-term crisis that is looming large.
Alongside the Shifang regional rescue headquarters, the soldiers converted a stadium into a tent city to house survivors. It's more permanent looking than the long lines of hastily erected tarps covering rows of beds and lining the roadsides throughout the quake zone, but it is just one of hundreds of camps now being erected in stadiums, on playing fields and in parks in areas that missed the worst of the quake.
Here, scores of newly homeless people are milling around aimlessly on the grass, at loose ends since their lives were turned upside down by the worst disaster to hit this country in 32 years.
The children are a different story. Many of them can't seem to sustain the mourning. They have too much energy to expend and they are racing each other around the track that circles the field of tents and playing games, enjoying the novelty of new surroundings and new people.
About 50,000 people now live in tents in Shifang and more are coming every day. They are among the 4.8 million people in the province China so far estimates are homeless -- an area about two-thirds the size of Alberta.
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Saudi Arabia has made an unprecedented contribution of $500 million to the U.N. World Food Program to respond to rising food and fuel prices that threatened emergency aid to millions of needy people, the United Nations announced Friday.
The contribution was by far the largest response to the U.N. food agency's emergency appeal for $755 million to cover its increased costs.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon "warmly welcomes the offer of the landmark contribution" from Saudi Arabia, U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said. "The secretary-general notes that this contribution of an unprecedented size and generosity comes not a moment too soon, given the needs of millions of people dependent on food rations."
The Saudi contribution means the agency, which operates the world's largest humanitarian program, will now have the $755 million it needs to carry on its activities without cutting the amount of food given to the world's needy, Okabe said.
Josette Sheeran, the agency's executive director, said donations actually topped the appeal target — reaching $960 million from 32 countries — which means WFP will have $205 million to use for other urgent needs.
"We turned to the world to help the hungry and the world has been generous," Sheeran said in a statement issued at the agency's Rome headquarters.
"The Saudi donation will help keep many people from dying, others from slipping into malnutrition and disease, and will even help to stave off civil unrest" over soaring food prices, she said.
According to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Saudi Arabia produces about 9 million barrels of oil a day, making it the largest oil producer in the world. Oil prices have now topped $130 a barrel.
Ban warned last month that the rapidly escalating global food crisis has reached emergency proportions and threatens to wipe out seven years of progress in the fight against global poverty.
The secretary-general echoed World Bank President Robert Zoellick's appeal to governments to quickly provide WFP with the $500 million in emergency aid it still needed by May 1.
He warned then that even if WFP's shortfall is met, more money will probably be needed because food and fuel prices are continuing to rise.
Ban has established a top-level task force to tackle the world food crisis. He has also invited all world leaders to join him at a summit in Rome from June 3-5 organized by the U.N. Food Agriculture Organization to work out a strategy to address and overcome the crisis.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
May 25, 2008
Grief in the Rubble
Chinese Are Left to Ask Why Schools Crumbled
By JIM YARDLEY
This story was reported by Jim Yardley, Jake Hooker and Andrew C. Revkin, and was written by Mr. Yardley.
DUJIANGYAN, China — The earthquake’s destruction of Xinjian Primary School was swift and complete. Hundreds of children were crushed as the floors collapsed in a deluge of falling bricks and concrete. Days later, as curiosity seekers came with video cameras and as parents came to grieve, the four-story school was no more than rubble.
In contrast, none of the nearby buildings were badly damaged. A separate kindergarten less than 20 feet away survived with barely a crack. An adjacent 10-story hotel stood largely undisturbed. And another local primary school, Beijie, catering to children of the elite, was in such good condition that local officials were using it as a refugee center.
“This is not a natural disaster,” said Ren Yongchang, whose 9-year-old son died inside the destroyed school. His hands were covered in plaster dust as he stood beside the rubble, shouting and weeping as he grabbed the exposed steel rebar of a broken concrete column. “This is not good steel. It doesn’t meet standards. They stole our children.”
There is no official figure on how many children died at Xinjian Primary School, nor on how many died at scores of other schools that collapsed in the powerful May 12 earthquake in Sichuan Province. But the number of student deaths seems likely to exceed 10,000, and possibly go much higher, a staggering figure that has become a simmering controversy in China as grieving parents say their children might have lived had the schools been better built.
The Chinese government has enjoyed broad public support for its handling of the earthquake, and in Sichuan on Saturday, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations praised the government’s response.
But as parents at different schools begin to speak out, the question of whether official negligence, and possibly corruption, contributed to the student deaths could turn public opinion. The government has launched an investigation, but censors, wary of the public mood, are trying to suppress the issue in state-run media and online.
An examination of the collapse of Xinjian Primary School offers a disturbing picture of a calamity that might have been avoided. Many parents say they were told the school was unsafe. Xinjian was poorly built when it opened its doors in 1992, they say, and never got its share of government funds for reconstruction because of its low ranking in the local education bureaucracy and the low social status of its students.
A decade ago, a detached wing of the school was torn down and rebuilt because of safety concerns. But the main building remained unimproved. Engineers and earthquake experts who examined photographs of its wreckage concluded that the structure had many failings and one critical flaw: inadequate iron reinforcing rods running up the school’s vertical columns. One expert described the unstable concrete floor panels as “time bombs.”
May 27, 2008
Turning Schools From Death Traps Into Havens
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
The potential for a modest school to survive a powerful earthquake is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in Balakot, Pakistan, one of hundreds of communities near the border with India shattered by a devastating tectonic jolt on Oct. 8, 2005.
About 80,000 people died in all, including 17,000 children in more than 7,000 schools that collapsed. Balakot, draped on a rugged hilltop, became a field of rubble. Out of several school buildings, the only one that remained standing was the one that had been reinforced two years earlier with a couple of extra columns and roof beams.
Garry de la Pomerai, a British rescue expert who spent days seeking survivors amid wreckage in the region in the days after the quake, said he marveled at the surviving schoolhouse when he returned to tour the town on May 15, just three days after another devastating quake in a different part of the world left hundreds of children and staff members crushed in their classrooms.
Mr. de la Pomerai was attending a long-planned international conference on school safety in Islamabad even as armies of rescuers were clawing at the remains of collapsed schools in China’s Sichuan province.
“I’m sick to death of going to schools where there are no survivors,” Mr. de la Pomerai, 49, said in a telephone interview from the safety conference. “That’s the very future of a community.”
After the Pakistan quake, he joined a growing international coalition of engineers, safety and community activists, earthquake experts and disaster agency officials trying to transform schools from death traps into havens when disaster strikes.
The movement really began in California in 1933, when 70 schools collapsed around Los Angeles in the so-called Long Beach earthquake and a mob sought to lynch a city school-building inspector. It was after hours when the quake occurred, and the inspector escaped the mob. But a month later the legislature passed what is now called the Field Act, a school earthquake-safety law with strict standards and penalties, requiring careful design and independently inspected construction.
Since then, no student or teacher has been hurt during a quake in a school built under the Field Act’s terms. And the cost of repairing damage to those schools has ranged from 10 to 100 times below repair costs for other schools, said Brian E. Tucker, an earth scientist and the founder of GeoHazards International, a group working to limit predictable losses in such calamities. Moreover, the quake-resistant schools cost only about 4 percent more than they otherwise would, he said.
In Balakot, new, sturdier school buildings — built with the help of a Swiss development agency — stand near the repaired surviving structure. But also nearby are the small graves of some of the children killed in 2005.
Despite progress in California and a few other places, including Bogotá, Colombia, vulnerability prevails around the world’s seismic hot spots, from the Pacific Northwest to the Philippines.
Pakistan has barely begun to deal with the threat. Mr. de la Pomerai, in a speech at the conference, noted that 80 percent of the country’s quake-threatened schools remained unfortified.
In India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, a massive existing school-construction program — producing about 30 new schools each day over the last several years — has begun to incorporate earthquake-resistant features and training for 10,000 masons and more than 1,100 junior engineers. But 125,000 existing schools remain “unsafe and in need of retrofit,” according to a 2007 report from the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center.
The persistent vulnerability is not limited to remote regions of developing countries, but extends to the city centers of places as cosmopolitan as Portland, Ore., and Istanbul, both of which face looming seismic shocks.
Yumei Wang, the director of Oregon’s geohazards team, said a quick evaluation last year found that 1,300 of the state’s schools (housing 340,000 students) and emergency-services buildings had a “high or very high” risk of collapse in a substantial earthquake.
And the region faces the near-inevitable prospect of a great earthquake on the Cascadia fault, possibly a 9.0 — 32 times more powerful than the 8.0-magnitude temblor in Sichuan. The last such quake there occurred in 1700, raising a tsunami potent enough to be recorded in Japan.
While money is slowly flowing to retrofitting programs in Oregon, Washington state and British Columbia, decades of work will be required to bolster all schools. “We don’t just need a few demonstration projects,” Ms. Wang said. “We have to start fixing dozens of buildings and then hundreds. Otherwise we’re going to have this tremendous disaster and huge cleanup like you’ve seen in other places.”
Retrofitting is advancing far faster in schools serving wealthier areas than those in poor ones, frustrating many earthquake experts. That pattern was revealed in some stricken Chinese cities. But it exists in Oregon as well, Ms. Wang said. “The poor districts don’t even know about this risk because they are struggling with everything else,” Ms. Wang said. “It’s ugly to talk about, but there’s this disparity. The rich school districts are getting better education, better textbooks, better sports — and safer schools.”
The main challenge in bolstering resilience to such geophysical shocks, Ms. Wang, Mr. Tucker and many other experts said, is not the structural engineering. There is no mystery to adding and securing iron rods in concrete, securing floors to beams, boosting the resilience of columns, monitoring the size of gravel mixed with cement.
It is not cost, either. In California, Dr. Tucker notes, the premium for building earthquake resistance into new schools is less than 4 percent. The payoff, beyond saved lives, is significantly lower repair costs after a temblor — 10 to 100 times less than in unimproved buildings. (In poorer countries, the differential in cost could be substantially higher, other experts note, but the payoff, they say, is priceless.)
Rich or poor, the big challenge lies in overcoming social and political hurdles that still give priority to pressing daily problems over foreseeable disasters that may not occur for decades, scores of years, or longer. In some developing countries there is a tendency to ascribe earthquakes and their consequences to fate, but Dr. Tucker and other experts say that lets the authorities off the hook.
“I can’t hold a government responsible for protecting its citizens against a meteorite falling out of the sky,” Dr. Tucker said. “But I can and do hold a government in a country with known seismic risk responsible for protecting its children, who are compelled to attend school, from the school collapsing during an earthquake.”
Dr. Tucker has written or co-written a lengthening string of reports pointing to the building risks worldwide as more populations shift to urban areas, often into shoddy, hastily built structures, with children sent to schools in similar, and often worse, condition.
Arthur Lerner-Lam, who maps disaster risks at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, agrees that urbanization in earthquake zones is setting the world up for its first true megadisaster — a million-casualty earthquake that many seismologists say is only a matter of time. The greatest risk, he said, lies in a belt from Italy and Turkey through central Asia and the Himalayas into central China.
In such regions, Dr. Tucker said, the best blueprints and materials are no guarantee of safety without adequate building codes, laws, training, inspections and enforcement.
The biggest challenge of all may simply be redefining security, and building societies that demand that government investments match risks, said Fouad Bendimerad, an engineering and risk-management consultant in California and chairman of the Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative.
“The typical government spends around 15 percent of its G.D.P. to defend against exterior military threats that may never occur during the lifetime of generation,” Dr. Bendimerad said. “Why do we want to exonerate governments from dedicating a small portion of that 15 percent to protect against the threats of natural hazards that we know will happen?”
June 5, 2008
Experts Warned of Quake Risk in China
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
SHANGHAI — Chinese scientists say that even before a final accounting can be made in last month’s earthquake in Sichuan Province, one thing is painfully evident: The huge death toll stems partly from a failure to heed clear warnings of a devastating earthquake in the area.
For decades, Chinese scientists say, they have known of the risk of a potentially catastrophic earthquake along the Longmenshan belt, the area where the Wenchuan earthquake struck, and repeatedly raised their concerns with government authorities. But they say preparations for a quake there were cursory at best, and building codes remained well short of the codes that have become standard in other well-known earthquake zones, including Beijing itself.
The ruling Communist Party has hailed its own vigorous response to the quake as evidence of its concern for human life, and has generally received positive reviews at home and abroad for its rescue efforts after the quake. To date, however, China’s state-run news media have paid little attention to the fact that government officials apparently did little to shore up structures, limit urban growth or even conduct basic safety drills that might have reduced the death toll.
“Chinese people have a saying, that you learn a fence needs mending after the sheep have run away,” said Gao Jianguo, a researcher with the China Earthquake Administration, in Beijing. “In this case, people wouldn’t recognize the danger until the sheep actually died. We tried to lay out the reasons beforehand, but people wouldn’t listen.”
One after another, Chinese experts have emphasized that they are unable to predict the timing of an event like the one May 12, which left about 87,000 people dead or missing. But they say the general danger to this region has been known since at least 1933, when a major quake struck Wenchuan, and has been studied fairly intensively since the 1970s.
“The line of the middle fault is as clear as a string,” said Li Yong, a geological expert at Chengdu University of Technology. “It suggests continuous and strong movement. Such a long and clear lineament should trigger a big quake. Other scientists have had similar ideas.”
In July, a paper by Mr. Li and another scientist raised the likelihood of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake along the Longmenshan belt, and spoke again of the dangers there at a conference in China a month before the disaster.
While many say scientists advocated stronger precautionary measures for years, some also expressed a deep sense of failure for not having warned the government in stronger terms that seismic danger there was being underestimated. The Longmenshan belt did not appear, for example, on a recent priority watch list of likely trouble spots.
“Beyond the pain felt by ordinary Chinese, we in earthquake science are guilty beyond description,” said Ma Shengli, deputy director of the Institute of Geology of the Chinese Earthquake Administration. “Our ability fell far short of what was needed, and we can’t help but cry.”
Some seismologists also say that the earthquake agency, based in Beijing, did not press the government to impose tougher building codes in the region. So even if most buildings there had been built to code — many appeared to fall far short — they might well have failed to withstand the May quake, which the Chinese government says had a magnitude of 8.0, the most powerful in China in modern times.
“The earthquake administration didn’t warn the government enough,” said Mr. Gao, the researcher with the earthquake agency. “We told them things should be built to withstand seventh-degree crack resistance, but we should have insisted on ninth degree, just as experts from the Soviet Union advised us back in the 1950s.”
Mr. Gao referred to an earthquake building code standard used in China. A building would have required construction to an 11th-degree standard to have escaped damage in last month’s earthquake. Many Chinese experts invoked the high cost of building structures to withstand major earthquakes as a rationale for the failure to do so.
Earthquake-related building codes exist throughout China, but experts say they have been applied spottily. In Beijing, where the earthquake risk is high, more strenuous efforts have been made to enforce strict building codes. In many other high-risk areas, this has not been the case.
“Standards are one thing, and the implementation is another,” said Liu Hang, a professor and senior engineer at the Beijing Construction Engineering Research Institute. “The quake-proof level for Wenchuan’s local buildings is rated Degree 7, but based on what I’ve seen on-site, the buildings there are far from reaching this standard. Let’s not talk about whether the degree of quake-proofing is high enough; the buildings in the affected areas just have no quake-proof protection at all.”
Speaking of the capital, Mr. Liu said, “Unless the epicenter of an earthquake like this occurred right in Tiananmen Square, central Beijing would not be seriously damaged.”
Officials at China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development did not respond to a request for an interview. An official at Sichuan Province’s construction department who identified himself only as Lu denied there were widespread problems of enforcing building standards, but declined to say more.
In light of the huge loss of life, many said that whatever the rationale, the failure to enforce adequate building standards in Sichuan was unacceptable.
Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, called the failure to enforce adequate building standards a case of “serious malfeasance” on the part of local governments.
“One of their basic responsibilities is to ensure people’s safety, which means supervising the quality of people’s homes, and making sure that new houses comply with standards,” Professor Hu said. “Even if they haven’t made the effort to cover all rural housing, initially they should make sure public buildings, such as schools and hospitals, are safe and compliant.”
China has long pushed major infrastructure and even military developments in the area despite the quake risk. The mountainous region outside Chengdu became a major military production base in the 1960s, when China feared the possibility of an attack from the Soviet Union or the United States. Nuclear design, plutonium and fighter jet production facilities were located not far from the Longmenshan belt, largely because the region, deep in central China, was far from the country’s borders and considered relatively safe from aerial assault.
Under Mao’s Third Front policy, major industrial and military facilities were located in the Chinese heartland rather than in coastal areas viewed as more vulnerable. “The awareness of earthquake risk has been a gradual process, while the construction of the Third Front was primarily a political decision,” said Ma Dingsheng, a military expert and commentator on Phoenix TV, based in Hong Kong. He said that even after the quake risk was better understood, military facilities there continued to expand.
There is no evidence of serious damage to military facilities, though information about them is highly classified in China.
On Wednesday, China’s State Council passed a draft regulation on post-quake restoration and reconstruction at an executive meeting, the official Xinhua news agency reported Thursday. It introduced special requirements on earthquake-resistance levels of infrastructure construction in the quake-hit regions, including schools and hospitals.
Local governments must organize personnel to conduct safety appraisals of all school buildings as soon as possible to ensure the safety of students as they return to school, according to the statement.
A disproportionately large number of the earthquake’s victims were children crushed when thousands of classrooms crumbled or collapsed. Facing pressure from parents over the loss of their children, this week the Sichuan Education Bureau published a list of five reasons school-related deaths were so high. The reasons included the timing of the quake, while classes were in session, and the age of school buildings. No mention was made of government failure to enforce standards, or of corruption, which are taboo subjects.
Treading carefully around a politically delicate subject, Mr. Li, the co-author of last year’s paper warning of the danger to this region, said, “Many experts have provided their knowledge and suggestions, but how much of it became a reality in these towns and villages isn’t something that’s convenient for me to say.”
Some scientists said that given the known risk, the areas with the worst damage should never have been settled. “How could a populous city be built in such a risky area, particularly right at the foot of mountains?” said Liu Jingbo, a professor at the Construction Institute of Disaster Preparation and Relief at Tsinghua University, in Beijing. “When an earthquake occurs, it’s not just the collapse of buildings that buries people, but boulders and huge rocks and mud flows follow on immediately.”
More than 15,000 people died in Beichuan, or about one-tenth of the city’s population. “The ignorance of the local government or the lack of attention to implementation of the departments with real power contributed to this tragedy,” Professor Liu said.
Beichuan, a county capital, was moved in 1952 to its present site at the foot of three mountains, from a nearby site that was prone to flooding. But concerns about the risk of a major earthquake have been voiced almost continuously since the relocation.
“Ever since I was small,” said Sun Xiaotao, director of the general office of Beichuan County’s fiscal bureau, “I’ve heard talk about how if an earthquake happened, we’d be wrapped in, just like a dumpling.”
Reporting was contributed by Fan Wenxin, Li Zhen and Shi Jing from Shanghai, and John Schwartz from New York.
CREDIT: Nir Elias, Reuters
In China, many parents blame government corruption for the collapse of so many schools during the recent quake, leaving few pupils surviving to attend outdoor classes like this one at a refugee camp in Sichuan province. (photo)
Beijing will send a medical team to China's earthquake zone to reverse sterilization operations on parents who have lost children in the disaster to allow them to have another child, Xinhua said on Friday.
The team will provide technological support for those wanting to give birth to another child, the agency quoted Zhang Shikun, director of the science and technology bureau of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, as saying.
The announcement comes after a growing number of parents from across the quake-hit area have been demanding the government explain why so many schools collapsed during the quake.
Many parents believe corruption in school construction was to blame for the shoddy buildings.
At least 69,000 people died in the quake.
The medical team will also provide free counselling, guidance, surgery, and the implementation of artificial reproduction technology for those who wish to have another child, said Xinhua.
Under China's "one child" policies, parents who lose a child or have a disabled child are allowed to have a second baby.
The Sichuan provincial Population and Family Planning Commission estimated about 7,000 dead and 16,000 injured were the only children of their families.
June 18, 2008
Burmese Endure in Spite of Junta, Aid Workers Say
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
YANGON, Myanmar — More than six weeks have passed since Cyclone Nargis swept through the Irrawaddy Delta in southern Myanmar, leaving a trail of flattened villages and broken lives and arousing international sympathy that turned to anguish as the military government obstructed foreign aid.
Now doctors and aid workers returning from remote areas of the delta are offering a less pessimistic picture of the human cost of the delay in reaching survivors.
They say they have seen no signs of starvation or widespread outbreaks of disease. While it is estimated that the cyclone may have killed 130,000 people, the number of lives lost specifically because of the junta’s slow response to the disaster appears to have been smaller than expected.
Relief workers here continue to criticize the government’s secretive posture and obsession with security, its restrictions on foreign aid experts and the weeks of dawdling that left bloated bodies befouling waterways and survivors marooned with little food. But the specific character of the cyclone, the hardiness of villagers and aid from private citizens helped prevent further death and sickness, aid workers say.
Most of the people killed by the cyclone, which struck on May 2-3, drowned. But those who survived were not likely to need urgent medical attention, doctors say.
“We saw very, very few serious injuries,” said Frank Smithuis, manager of the substantial mission of Doctors Without Borders in Myanmar. “You were dead or you were in O.K. shape.”
The cyclone swept away bamboo huts throughout the delta; in the hardest-hit villages, it left almost no trace of habitation. Some survivors carried away by floods found themselves many miles from home when the waters receded.
But those who survived were not likely to be injured in the aftermath by falling rocks or collapsing buildings, as often happens during natural disasters, like the earthquake in China.
That appears to be the primary reason villagers were able to stay alive for weeks without aid. As they waited, the survivors, most of whom were fishermen and farmers, lived off of coconuts, rotten rice and fish.
“The Burmese people are used to getting nothing,” said Shari Villarosa, the highest-ranking United States diplomat in Myanmar, formerly Burma. “I’m not getting the sense that there have been a lot of deaths as a result of the delay.”
The United States has accused the military government of “criminal neglect” in its handling of the disaster caused by the cyclone. Privately, many aid workers have, too. The junta, widely disliked among Myanmar’s citizens, did not have the means to lead a sustained relief campaign, they say.
But relief workers say the debate over access for foreigners and the refusal of the government to allow in military helicopters and ships from the United States, France and Britain overshadowed a substantial relief operation carried out mainly by Burmese citizens and monks.
They organized convoys of trucks filled with drinking water, clothing, food and construction materials that poured into the delta.
“It’s been overwhelmingly impressive what local organizations, medical groups and some businessmen have done,” said Ruth Bradley Jones, second secretary in the British Embassy in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. “They are the true heroes of the relief effort.”
Aid workers emphasize that of the estimated 2.4 million Burmese strongly affected by the storm, thousands remain vulnerable to sickness and many are still without adequate food, shelter and supplies.
But their ailments are — for now — minor. Medical logs from Doctors Without Borders show that of the 30,000 people the group’s workers treated in the six weeks after the cyclone, most had flesh wounds, diarrhea or respiratory infections. The latter two afflictions are common in rural Southeast Asia even in normal times. Diarrhea can be especially dangerous for infants and young children, but doctors say that, while they have treated thousands of cases, the illness has not reached critical levels.
“I can’t say it was an outbreak,” said May Myad Win, a general practitioner who works for Doctors Without Borders and spent 25 days in the delta treating an average of 25 patients a day. “It was not as severe as we feared.”
The number of people in need of serious medical aid was judged to be low enough that officials at a British medical group canceled plans to bring in a team of surgeons in the days after the storm, said Paula Sansom, the manager of the emergency response team for the group, Merlin.
For several weeks after the disaster, the government prevented all but a small number of foreigners from entering the delta. Now a more comprehensive picture of the damage is being assembled by a team of 250 officials led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The officials plan to release their findings next week.
The number of people killed in the storm may never be known. The government has not updated its toll since May 16, when it said 77,738 people were killed and 55,917 were missing.
In a country that has not had a full census in decades, it is not even certain how many people had been living in the area before the storm. Itinerants who worked in the salt marshes and shrimp farms were probably not counted among the dead, aid workers say.
But it is clear that in many villages, women and children died in disproportionate numbers, said Osamu Kunii, chief of the health and nutrition section of Unicef in Myanmar.
“Only people who could endure the tidal surge and high winds could survive,” Mr. Kunii said. In one village of 700, all children under the age of 7 died, he said.
With only minimal food supplies in villages, aid workers say, delta residents will require aid until at least the end of the year. The United Nations, after weeks of haggling with Myanmar’s government for permission to provide assistance, is now using 10 helicopters to deliver supplies to hard-to-reach places and alerting relief experts at the earliest sign of disease outbreaks.
Still, the military government continues to make it difficult for aid agencies to operate.
Last week, the government issued a directive that accused foreign aid agencies and the United Nations of having “deviated from the normal procedures.” The government imposed an extra layer of approvals for travel into the delta, effectively requiring that all foreigners be accompanied by government officials.
“They’re changing the goal posts,” said Chris Kaye, the director of operations in Myanmar for the United Nations World Food Program. “We have a whole set of new procedures.”
Myanmar’s government says it issued 815 visas for foreign aid workers and medical personnel in the month after the cyclone. But some aid workers were never allowed in, including the disaster response team from the United States Agency for International Development.
Local news media reported over the weekend that the government planned to build 500 cyclone shelters in the delta. These structures are used in neighboring Bangladesh, which has a relatively widespread early warning system.
When Cyclone Sidr struck Bangladesh in November, the winds reached an intensity similar to the 155-mile-an-hour gusts that blew through the Irrawaddy Delta last month.
Tellingly, the number of people killed by Cyclone Sidr — about 3,500 — was a small fraction of those killed in last month’s cyclone here.
August 15, 2008
Where’s the Trauma and the Grief?
By DAVID BROOKS
Three months ago, an earthquake struck China’s Sichuan Province, killing nearly 70,000 people. Xian Tianquan was at home with his wife in the village of Pengshua at the time. They made a dash to get outside. Xian’s wife was just ahead of him, crossing the threshold of their house when the frame collapsed. She was killed instantly.
The village was cut off from outside help for three days. Xian took his wife’s body and carried it up to the hills, where he buried her.
This week, he sat on the spot of her death, telling the story with a matter-of-fact, almost cheerful air. A small group of villagers was hanging around, and the interview, outside under a tarp, was a communal affair. The villagers joked with each other and smiled frequently in a manner I found hard to fathom as they described the horrible events from May.
I asked Xian if he had thought about leaving the village after what had happened. The idea had never crossed his mind, he said. Many families lost people (a nearby kindergarten building collapsed), and if the healthy left, who would look after the young ones and the elders? Members of the village now share cooking duties and help each other with everything.
I asked if people in the village have suffered any psychological aftershocks from the trauma. Another villager, Tan Fubian, piped up and said that they just try not to think about it. Then I asked about the reconstruction.
To my eyes, this part of the region looks forlorn. Houses and stores have been reduced to empty shells. Piles of rubble line the streets. In one town, an elderly man stood atop some concrete stairs laboriously swinging a hammer in an attempt to destroy them. There’s little construction equipment in the residential areas.
Tan pointed out that the government had established priorities. Public buildings like hospitals, schools and government offices would be rebuilt first. Private houses after that.
I asked if the villagers were watching the Olympics, and wondered if the lavish spending on the Games could better be used to address their own needs. “Our problems are temporary,” one villager responded. “The Olympics are for the national community.” Last Friday, the whole village had gathered (just by the spot where Xian’s wife had died) to have a feast and watch the opening ceremony.
We’d visited the village without warning and selected our interview subjects at random, but some of the answers were probably crafted to please the government. Still, there was no disguising the emotional resilience and intense mutual support in that village. And there was no avoiding the baffling sense of equanimity. Where was the trauma and grief?
The next day we approached Qi Chengbin, a retired food vendor in the city of Dujiangyan. Qi was working in the garden outside his six-story apartment building when the quake hit. His only child, an 18-year-old son, was taking a nap inside when the entire building collapsed on top of him.
Qi never saw his son or any of his possessions again. His own wounds were treated and his son’s body was cremated by the military. Qi says he hopes to have a funeral for the boy, but he hasn’t had a chance to organize it.
When I asked about the psychological effects of such a shock, Qi emphasized the positive. The government had provided free medical care. Within nine days, he had been resettled in a one-room apartment in a temporary housing camp. He’d lived through China’s dark days, and this apartment was nicer than any place he’d lived in the 1960s.
Moreover, the government had given him everything he now owns. “The government wants us to look on the positive side,” he said.
There were no pictures of his dead son around, but from under his bed he pulled a photo album that had been at his mother-in-law’s at the time of the quake. I thought he would betray some emotion as he passed around photos of his handsome, scholarly looking boy. There was nothing. He kept speaking in that pragmatic tone, just as Xian had done. Qi’s wife added that she was very satisfied with all that had been done for them.
These were weird, unnerving interviews, and I don’t pretend to understand what’s going on in the minds of people who have suffered such blows and remained so optimistic. All I can imagine is that the history of this province has given these people a stripped-down, pragmatic mentality: Move on or go crazy. Don’t dwell. Look to the positive. Fix what needs fixing. Work together.
I don’t know if it’s emotionally sustainable or even healthy, but it raises at least one interesting question. When you compare these people to the emotional Sturm und Drang over lesser things on reality TV, you do wonder if we Americans are a nation of whiners.
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