The devastating earthquake that struck Sichuan province in southwest China on Saturday hit close to home for Liao Wenjun.
Pausing from his rice bowl during lunch break at a military hospital in Shengli, a village near the epicentre, the 30-year-old doctor recalled the traumatic event that claimed the lives of almost 200 people and injured another 12,000. “Some of my relatives were buried in the rubble, and we still haven’t pulled them out,” he said.
Gesturing at the main street where houses lie like dropped matchsticks, he added without showing much emotion: “Our house is just down there.”
In Shengli, and other areas in the badly affected Lushan county, devastation from the worst quake to hit the area since 2008 met the eye everywhere.
Loose beams and broken furniture were scattered on the main street in Shengli – which means “victory” in Chinese – and the remaining buildings were too dangerous to enter.
“Get out of there right now!” yelled a gruff army officer when he spotted a colleague trying to buy batteries in the entrance of a shop.
With aftershocks rocking the area repeatedly on Sunday, villagers froze in fear each time they felt a fresh tremor. But the situation in Shengli and nearby villages paled in comparison with the 2008 quake that killed 90,000.
One silver lining from the 2008 disaster was that it sparked a big increase in civic involvement in disaster relief.
Over the weekend, volunteers – many with hand-painted “earthquake rescue” signs taped to their cars – flocked to the disaster area.
On the road to Longmen, a village where most houses were destroyed, so many private cars arrived with donations and relief – mostly water, instant noodles and blankets – that police started turning them away due to heavy road congestion. Later on Sunday, China’s cabinet said only official groups would be allowed access to reduce the traffic congestion that was hurting rescue efforts.
“In 2008, we all donated money but this time we decided to come ourselves to help,” said one businessman riding on a scooter as two friends rode astride another one. “We felt the earthquake in our county too but we know it is much worse over there, so we want to do whatever we can.”
Others were more organised. Feng Guangliang, an evangelical Christian from Hangzhou in east China, said his church formed a rapid-response team after the 2008 quake. Beijing tightly controls religious activities but independent churches are increasingly being tolerated when they operate in crisis areas.
“We wanted a way to show God’s love,” said Mr Feng. “We bought a car that we keep in Chengdu, so we can be quick to arrive when there are earthquakes.”
The government has tried to harness such enthusiasm via an official volunteer programme.
“There were hundreds of people in line when we signed up to volunteer,” said Yang Ya, a 21-year-
old who wandered through Shengli with his friends carrying a Chinese flag and a Communist flag. But the young men, who grew up in nearby Fenghuan village, were unsure how they would be able to help.
Government rapid-response teams also had a large visible presence in the affected areas. On Saturday and Sunday, the narrow mountain roads near the disaster zones were crammed with giant earth diggers, water trucks, ambulances, and military convoys. Mobile phone repair crews were also mobilised en masse and service had been restored to much of the area by Sunday night.
But not all of the official rescue efforts have gone smoothly. A convoy carrying thousands of tents was unable to reach the quake zone on Saturday night because the tents were loaded on to trucks too big for the tiny mountain roads.
As a result, many families spent their first night after the earthquake in makeshift shelters they pitched on the pavements or the street. Villagers also complained of a lack of food and water, since water supplies have been cut off.
“So many people come here but they all come empty-handed,” complained Yuan Shihua, a former village head of a hamlet in Taiping county. “There are lots of doctors, but we don’t have water or electricity. We’ve had no supplies delivered yesterday or today.”
Source: Financial Times