The Wenchuan earthquake was a surprise, but the government of Mianzhu, a small city of 513,000 people 30 km southeast of the epicenter, was prepared -- just not nearly enough.
Two years before, the city had drawn up a public emergency plan, which covered earthquakes, said Mianzhu city government deputy secretary general Deng Qiang.
The plan anticipated four quake scenarios, the worst of which envisioned 300 deaths and a cost of 1 percent of the city's GDP, which was about 14 billion yuan. Yet this tremor of eight degrees on the Richter scale killed more than 11,000 people and caused 117.9 billion yuan in losses, according to the Mianzhu city government.
"We had a serious shortage of professional rescue workers. The city's firefighters and Armed Forces, together with those from neighboring Deyang City, numbered under 1,000. Many local people had to rely on their own devices," Deng said. "The medical equipment and drugs available were also far from sufficient."
Since the SARS epidemic in 2003, the Chinese authorities have passed a raft of laws and regulations on public emergency response. Many government departments, state-owned institutions and companies have also devised emergency plans. Shortly after the May 12 quake, the State Council launched class-one emergency response and other emergency plans were activated. It was the first time for the country to declare the highest state of disaster emergency since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. The situation required all government departments and institutions involved in the rescue and relief efforts to report their work directly to the State Council, and the Central Government must appropriate the relief fund no later than 24 hours after the quake took place.
Premier Wen Jiabao flew to the epicenter at Wenchuan County about two hours after the quake. He reached Dujiangyan city three hours later. It was still about 50 kilometers shy of Wenchuan, but it was as close as he could get because roads and paths leading to Wenchuan were all damaged. A temporary disaster relief headquarters was set up and so began a great rescue effort that will be remembered for generations.
The military was undoubtedly the most important force in the rescue operation. The Chengdu Military Area Command reportedly set up a rescue headquarters 10 minutes after the quake. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) operated under the slogan "Disaster is order for action, and every second counts." Within days, 110,000 soldiers and paramilitary personnel were involved in rescue operations in the most heavily quake-hit areas.
The nine airports in Sichuan Province maintained normal operations. Aircraft, trains and trucks carried people and goods from all corners of the country to the quake zone, and later carried the injured to safety.
The restoration of telecommunications links and supplies of electricity and oil were a priority. Medical workers from around China treated the injured and tried to prevent the spread of diseases.