By John Sexton & Keen Zhang
China.org.cn correspondents reporting from Sichuan
On June 7, water from the Tangjiashan quake lake began to overflow into a drainage channel excavated by the military, raising confidence that a catastrophic collapse and flooding of low lying areas will be avoided. Xinhua cited Fan Xiaoguang, deputy commander of the Chengdu military area, as saying the lake barrier is in no danger of collapsing in the foreseeable period.
Nevertheless residents of Mianyang, the city most threatened with flooding should the quake lake burst through its dam, remain extremely nervous, not only because of the flood risk but also because of frequent alarming aftershocks. Most are still sleeping in makeshift shelters in the city's streets and parks four weeks after the May 12 earthquake. Many return to their homes during the day to cook and wash, but high risk areas of the city have been cordoned off and are being guarded by police and troops.
The highway leading into the city is lined with improvised tents and huts of various sizes, and colors. Many are constructed from just a couple of plastic sheets and some bamboo. Some tiny shelters have been put together with plywood. One was just a piece of tarpaulin slung over a rope above a double bed.
There are relatively few of the large blue official tents marked with the disaster relief logo; some look like they have been bought from trekking shops. Occasionally there is a small grocery shop housed in a hut or a tent. There is still a desperate shortage of tents in the disaster area and priority so far has been to meet shelter needs in areas where homes were completely destroyed by the quake.
Improvised tents in Mianyang City
Mianyang is an easy two hour drive from Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province along a modern highway. On either side of the highway are scenes from another age; dozens of people bent double planting rice by hand, a man ploughing a field with a water buffalo, white cranes roosting in the treetops, all of which would have been familiar to Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai, whose former residence, a sign says, is 50 kilometers ahead.
Today there are signs of crisis; helicopters flying towards Mianyang from the direction of the quake lake; convoys of relief volunteers in private cars, their warning lights flashing, and dozens of trucks carrying prefabricated housing parts. From the highway the topography of the region is clear – between Mianyang and the dark jagged mountains in the west is flat farmland with no natural barriers to prevent water flooding into the city should the quake lake burst its dam.
The center of Mianyang is quiet and at first sight virtually deserted, but a second look reveals clumps of tents everywhere, including a particularly ragged group outside the futuristic building that houses Mianyang Science and Technology Museum. In normal times, Mianyang is a high tech electronics center as well as a tourist destination. It is a pleasant medium rise city bisected by a wide, shallow river.
City center residents pointed out to us the shelters they had pitched just yards from their apartments. They told us they were too afraid to sleep indoors because many houses had been structurally damaged by the quake and aftershocks were still frequent. One said a frightening aftershock had occurred at 5 a.m. that morning.
City residents are too afraid of aftershocks to sleep indoors.
Visible structural damage is not easy to spot and the city is more or less intact. Most of the more than 20,000 deaths that occurred in Mianyang were in the outlying townships and rural areas administered by the city government, including Beichuan, rather than in the city proper.
The city government is systematically checking housing for damage. According to a June 6 press release, about 1.18 million square meters of housing space has been surveyed, of which 1.06 million square meters was found to be safe, 113,100 square meters have been repaired and 15,800 square meters declared unsafe. But it seems that relatively few people are happy to sleep indoors.
The largest concentration of tented accommodation is in Fule Mountain public park, the largest of the evacuation centers set up to counter the flood threat. Hundreds of tents and improvised shelters are pitched among the trees and ornamental buildings on either side of the road that snakes up the mountain, which in fact barely qualifies as a hill. A problem facing the government’s relocation program is that there is not a great deal of high ground in Mianyang.
Lin Shunquan who is 68 years old and her husband Li Tuiliang who is 72, told us that when the earthquake happened on May 12 they immediately moved into a tent near their house. On May 22 the government relocated them to Fule Mountain. The government pays them 10 yuan per day during their stay in the park. Mrs Lin and Mr Li seemed in good spirits. Like most people in the park they are from the city proper, but in a nearby tent they pointed out a quiet, gentle, elderly man, with a sad smile, who they said was from Beichuan and had lost several members of his family.
Lin Shunquan and her husband Li Tuiliang were relocated to higher ground by the local government.
The city government is encouraging people to leave the city temporarily to relieve the pressure on space and supplies. Each evacuated person receives a stipend of 10 yuan per day plus half a kilo of food. The 10 yuan is increased to 20 yuan for those willing to temporarily stay with friends or relatives in another city or province. Firms are forbidden to fire residents who choose to leave and have been ordered to continue paying them a basic wage for the duration of the crisis.
The authorities have also designated 297 sites for prefabricated houses. 170 of the sites, 21 in Mianyang City and 149 in the counties of Beichuan, Jiangyou, Pingwu and Anxian, will have access to running water, electricity and roads. A total of 27,703 prefabricated houses have been donated to Mianyang so far, of which, 8,018 units have been erected.
Tan Zixiao moved his wife and grandchildren to the highway outside of town because of the quake lake flood risk. (All photos are taken by Wang Rui, photographer with China.org.cn)
Back on the highway, which at least slopes upward on the way out of the city, we spoke with Tan Zixiao, who had moved to a relatively well made shelter with his wife and two grandchildren from their low-lying house because of the quake lake threat. The children's parents are working in Shanghai. As a consequence of China’s decentralized social security system, Mr Tan and his family, who are not formally residents of Mianyang, do not qualify for the 10 yuan daily stipend. Despite this, like most of the people we spoke to in Mianyang, he seemed relatively happy with the government’s handling of the crisis so far.
(China.org.cn June 8, 2008)