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Disaster awareness enhanced a year after Wenchuan quake
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Sitting in a bamboo chair by the side of a street, Ren Shutian watched people disappear and reappear from the ally. Behind him was his house, a hundred-year-old wooden structure had remained almost intact in the Wenchuan earthquake in May 2008.

The quake left more than 87,000 people dead or missing and caused a direct economic loss of 845.1 billion yuan (about 124.28 billion U.S dollars).

Situated in the old urban district of Dujiangyan City, Ren's two-story old house in the style of the late Qing dynasty was a family heritage. Several years ago, Ren did a bit of renovation to consolidate the house.

Dujiangyan was one of the hardest hit. Nearly 3,500 of its people were killed or missing, and 4,300 others were injured.

"Apart from the drop of a few tiles, my house stayed fairly solid, without a single crevice," he said.

Some other wooden houses neighboring Ren's had also stood the trembling test with little damages. By contrast, the cement buildings only hundreds meters away were destroyed, some levelled to the ground.

The different fates of housings in the quake made construction specialists question for why. Wooden structured housings tend to be tougher and more protective to human lives, said Chen Suizhou, an architect in Guangyuan City.

In Qingchuan County, another area hit hard by the quake, hundreds of rural households were about to settle in the 160-plus modern wooden constructions scattered in the green farm field. The buildings, collectively known as Qiao'ai Residential Garden, were developed under the sponsorship of the Overseas Chinese Office under the State Council. And in Guanzhuang Town, Qingchuan, the demonstration houses built by three Canadian architects were pretty much in shape. These neatly structured, solid and durable houses added a bit of exotic flavor to the locality.

"Wooden houses are not expensive and tougher against earthquakes. It is recommendable in the quake hit areas," Qingchuan County government deputy head Zhou Jianming said.

The earthquake had sharpened the disaster awareness of the Chinese people, who realized that preparation was not only the government's responsibility. On May 1 a team of 200 volunteers in motor vehicles and on motorbikes left Beijing on a 13-day journey, covering 2,500 km in 10 provinces and municipalities. They planned to organize emergency response rehearsals in Zhengzhou, Xianyang, Shifang and Mianzhu.

The event was promoted by Chen Guangbiao, the entrepreneur who, two hours after the Wenchuan earthquake stroke, led a rescue team of 120 drivers and 60 heavy duty vehicles including bulldozers, excavators and hoisters covering all the miles from the east coastal province of Jiangsu to Sichuan in west central China. The team was the first non-governmental rescue team to arrive at the quake hit zone. Chen and his team were considered a symbol of the growing and maturing awareness of mutual help against disasters in the non-governmental sphere.

The quake also urged the strengthening of the government's capability in emergency rescue and relief. China Earthquake Administration's rescue team had been expanded from 220 to 500 people. The national team was now able to undertake simultaneously and round-the-clock 18 rescue operations at nine sites, against the three sites a year before. Rapid report of major earthquakes was faster, within 10 minutes after the strike for the provincial capital cities' neighboring areas and 20 minutes for many other parts of the country, both five minutes quicker than a year earlier.

May 12 was designated by the Ministry of Civil Affairs as a national "Disaster Protection and Reduction Day". This was to remind people of taking precautions against disasters. On this memorial day, governments in the country were expected to stage various disaster protection educational or training events.

The revised Law on Protecting Against and Mitigating Earthquake Disasters went to effect on May 1. Together with the Constitution, the Law on Emergency Response, and Regulations on Government Information Release, the disaster combat work had a solid legal basis in China.

However, the fire that broke out on Feb. 9 at the new CCTV headquarters, which was caused by fireworks, showed the urban disaster protection system was not without worries. In many Chinese big cities clusters of high-rise buildings are a common scene. The safety and fire-fighting capability of the urban areas should be a focus of the future disaster-combating work.

Last September, an inspection team composed of members of the country's top political advisory body toured a number of provinces to observe the disaster emergency response system. They found that, in general, the emergency response administrative and regulatory system was incomplete, the monitoring and pre-warning system was weak, and public involvement was inadequate.

Now, a year after the Wenchuan earthquake, raising the awareness and strengthening the mechanism of disaster combating had become a focal point of the government work.

"We are about to organize an Earthquake Preparation and Disaster Reduction Knowledge Competition involving 500,000 participants, in an attempt to impart the knowledge to people in schools, companies, communities, townships and villages," Sichuan Earthquake Administration deputy director Wang Li said.

The quake combating work in Sichuan was a comprehensive effort that centered on preparation. The government took the lead, and the general public, people from all walks of life, are expected to join in.

"Only when you're fully prepared, will you be free from panic," Wang Li said with a thoughtful look.

(Xinhua News Agency May 12, 2009)

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