Earth Moves, China Rallies

Rapeseed was ripening in the lush fields ringing the village of Renjia when a local farmer, forced from his home, stepped into the sea of green stalks and pitched a tent.

Less than a day earlier, the farmer and each of his more than 3,000 neighbors in Renjia had been rendered homeless by a powerful earthquake that rocked southwest China’s Sichuan province.

The April 20 quake devastated the village and other parts of mountainous Lushan County. As of May 3, officials said, the temblor registering 7.0 on the Richter scale had killed 196 people and injured 11,740.

It was the second major quake to hit Sichuan in five years. More than 87,000 people died in a 2008 disaster centered just north of Lushan in Wenchuan County.

The latest quake left tranquil Renjia, near the epicenter, ravaged like the target of a heavy artillery attack. Every house was destroyed or seriously damaged, and at least nine locals died. Survivors endured fearful aftershocks as late as April 24.

The quake also left behind questions about the effectiveness of China’s disaster preparedness system, building safety standards, the need for helicopters in rescue operations, and whether the nation’s earthquake experts could have done more to warn Sichuanese before the quake struck.

Meanwhile, volunteers and charities rallied to the side of the quake’s victims in ways that reflected an improved climate for non-profit groups and disaster-response lessons learned after the Wenchuan disaster.

Lushan, which has been inhabited for at least 2,300 years, is no stranger to seismic events. The county lies at the southernmost end of a geological formation called the Longmenshan fault, historically among the most active of eight major seismic belts that crisscross Sichuan. More than twenty-five destructive earthquakes have been recorded on the Longmenshan fault since 1169.

Renjia is a typical Lushan village, sitting at the base of two mountains. In this peaceful and close-knit community, most families share the surname Ren. Their ancestors moved to this area about twenty generations ago, during the Ming Dynasty, from central China’s ancient Huguang region.

Before the quake, the village’s old and new structures told of its history. Some brick buildings dated to the early 1900s, and some were still identified on outside walls as housing “educated youth” during the 1960s, when many young urbanites in China were assigned to work in the countryside.

Each local farmer raises crops such as rapeseed, corn, and rice in the surrounding fields. Life is hard, since an average farmer’s plot is less than one mu (666 square meters). Most of the village’s young adults leave to seek a better life in cities.

On the morning of April 20, eighty-six-year-old villager Cao Shida was sitting on his bed when the earth started shaking. Dogs were barking and pigs squealing as he ran outside, just before the roof collapsed onto the head of his bed. His son, Cao Mingde, and a grandson also escaped.

Across the street, a young man named Ren Tianlong ran into the street in his underwear just before his house collapsed. He heard his neighbor Wang Mei, a forty-one-year-old women, screaming for help from the rubble of another home. The screams soon fell silent; the woman and her daughter had died.

Stunned villagers immediately started digging for survivors. Corpses of the dead were, following local tradition, carried in coffins—black for adults, white for children—up a steep slope to the top of a nearby mountain. As many as a dozen mourners carried each coffin, chanting along the way. Sometimes those in front prostrated and those in the rear raised their arms high, carefully balancing the coffin as they hiked up the mountainside trail.

Villagers set off fireworks and honored the dead by burning ritual paper money. Blackened ashes from burnings and blood stains colored patches of rubble-strewn village streets for days after the disaster.

Families with nowhere to go squeezed into hastily built shacks, or slept in trucks. Hardly anyone walked through the village; instead, they fearfully ran past leaning walls and roofs on the verge of collapse.

Villagers eventually retrieved rice and other essentials from their ruined homes, and pitched tents in the rapeseed fields. Many villagers said they had worked hard and saved money for years to buy the homes that, in a few seconds, the quake had destroyed.

Forecasts and Warnings

After the Wenchuan disaster, some Chinese seismic experts declared it “impossible” for another major earthquake to hit Sichuan within one hundred years. Their predictions left most Sichuanese, including people in Lushan, at ease.

But early this year, researchers at the Ministry of Land and Resources, Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, and China Seismological Bureau reported that a major Sichuan earthquake appeared imminent. Their report in the Chinese Journal of Rock Mechanics and Engineering described high levels of stress building underground on a southwest section of the Longmenshan fault. The stress, they said, had accumulated since the Wenchuan quake and had reached critical levels.

But the warning never reached the public beyond the small circle of academics familiar with the journal. Moreover, earthquake management and disaster relief agencies made no special efforts to prepare for a possible disaster. And the media ignored the experts’ forecast.

Within days of the Lushan tragedy, academics started debating whether the quake was actually an aftershock tied to the much stronger Wenchuan temblor.

Zhou Bengang, a researcher at the China Seismological Bureau’s Geological Institute, told the official Xinhua News Agency that the Lushan quake had been an independent incident, occurring on a distinct section of the same fault that shook Wenchuan.

However, another group of academics led by Chen Yuntai, director of the Earth and Space Science Center at Peking University, disagreed with Zhou. These experts called the latest temblor a powerful Wenchuan quake aftershock. Chen told Caixin that on the basis of the epicenter’s location and characteristics, as well as the magnitude of the quake, he had determined the Lushan event was simply a continuation of the 2008 movement of the earth on a southwest section of the fault.

Agreeing with aftershock proponents was geophysicist Jessica Turner of the U.S. Geological Survey. She said the Lushan temblor was caused by vacillating east-west ground movements along the north-south Longmenshan fault.

The whole debate, though, is a waste of time, argued China Seismological Bureau researcher Ran Yongkang. “Whether it was an aftershock or not, it happened,” he said.

But for Chen, it’s a critical issue for disaster preparedness. If the event can be called an aftershock, he said, perhaps more could have been done in the years since the Wenchuan disaster to prepare Sichuan for the next strike.

Some experts wonder, however, about the effectiveness of any early-warning system.

Some residents of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan about 170 kilometers from Renjian, received through a smartphone app a shockwave warning just seconds after the seismic event in Lushan. Issuing the warning was the private Chengdu Institute of Care-Life whose director, Wang Tun, told Caixin the shockwave reached Chengdu in thirty-three seconds, but a full twenty-eight seconds after the app warning was transmitted.

“Our system provides early-response warnings to more than 500,000 people,” said Wang. However, Chengdu’s population is 12.6 million, and some 80 million people live in Sichuan.

The app-based warning system cost tens of millions of yuan to build. It was funded with money from Wang, local government science bureaus, the provincial government, the central government’s Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Natural Science Foundation.

“We hope to get enough funding to expand the scope of warnings and gain support from relevant departments,” said Wang.

To its credit, the Sichuan government held mock rescue drills two days before the quake. The “Lightning A” exercise assumed a magnitude 7.0 or higher quake in Sichuan.

Many similar drills have been held over the past five years. Officials say these exercises have effectively shortened the time needed for rescuers to respond to an earthquake.

Meanwhile, however, the central government’s “national team” for earthquake response, the China Seismological Bureau, has been called sluggish.

“It would obviously be best to have a few seconds of reaction time” before a quake struck, said Ran. “We are currently, slowly testing a system. But it won’t immediately be available around the country.”

Besides, Ran said, building an earthquake warning system is “a huge project. Who’s going to pay?”

Risks and Response

Fallen buildings were death traps during the Wenchuan earthquake. The Lushan disaster was no different, even though since 2008 local governments in Sichuan have implemented earthquake-safety plans designed to improve the durability of civilian structures.

Officials had rated Lushan’s structures to withstand earthquakes of up to an intensity level of 7.0, according to Structural Earthquake-Proofing Design Standards published by the Ministry of Housing in 2010.

But these standards targeted only large structures including schools, hospitals, and other buildings with high concentrations of people. The standards do not require fortifying or quake-proofing existing structures.

Lushan residents did not feel much of a shock during the Wenchuan earthquake. But Gao Rui remembers ceiling tiles falling in the classroom where he was a student at the Chenyang Hope School in Longmen Township, injuring some students.

Gao recalls being afraid and, for the first time, realizing he was living on a seismic fault.

Other area residents grasped the magnitude of the danger only after the Lushan quake raised fears of rockslides in the mountains above villages.

Three days after the temblor, a team of rescuers led by local villager Wang Kaiming used machetes to slash their way through a forested slope to reach a huge boulder on a mountain top only 450 meters from a village. They concluded the boulder was holding firm, and that the villagers were safe.

Pei Xiangjun, an official with the geological emergency office at the Ministry of Land and Resources, reported the quake triggered forty-one incidents of falling rocks and more than fifty landslides in Lushan County. Few, though, were considered dangerous.

And thanks to Lightening A and other training events, the first rescue helicopters took off from Chengdu bound for the Lushan disaster zone within fifteen minutes of the quake. Back in 2008, an agonizing two hours had passed before the first helicopters were off the ground.

Moreover, within three hours the government set wheels in motion to help Lushan’s victims by implementing a “grade one” emergency plan, which is a coordinated plan to handle any disaster in China that kills more than 200 or forces more than 1 million to relocate. Eight hours were needed for a similar reaction after the Wenchuan earthquake.

Within fifty-six hours of the disaster, Lushan’s telecommunications services had been fully restored.

Another rapid response came from the National Administration of Surveying, Mapping, and Geological Information, which used an unmanned aircraft to snap the first high-resolution aerial images of the Lushan disaster area just nine hours after the temblor.

Busy on the ground were teams of rescuers with all-terrain vehicles and operators of heavy equipment. Experience gained from the Wenchuan relief efforts streamlined logistics for equipment shipments and relief teams. Indeed, most of the Lushan quake victims pinned under debris were rescued within a day.

Ironically, though, some quake-related dangers were tied to the emergency response. Various agencies responded quickly to the earthquake, and within hours traffic congestion had clogged area roads with heavy equipment and vehicles filled with teams of workers as well as volunteers rushing to the scene.

Traffic jams prompted policymakers to order a halt to additional relief forces less than a day after the quake. Local governments urged amateur rescuers and various types of volunteers to stay out of the disaster area. Even so, some volunteers were injured while trying to help.

An associate researcher at the Sichuan Province Earthquake Disaster Institute, Zhai Kun, said the official reaction as well as the public response may have been a little overzealous, but not to a fault.

“A magnitude 7.0 quake is a big quake,” he said. “So they certainly wanted to use all accumulated experience as fast as possible.

“The response quickly stabilized. Some credit for that should go to social media networks,” Zhai said. “Many volunteers and civilian organizations changed their plans after getting a better understanding of the situation.”

Still, some experts say the helicopter response to the Lushan quake was lacking. A pilot involved in the Wenchuan relief effort told Caixin that China has some helicopters made in China, but also operates old models made decades ago in the United States or the former Soviet Union.

Caixin reporters at the Lushan disaster scene saw the same kinds of foreign-made helicopters flying overhead as they had seen in 2008 in Wenchuan.

It was after the Wenchuan earthquake that then-premier Wen Jiabao told students at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics that he was “stung to the heart” after learning that Chinese rescuers had been forced to fly rented foreign-made helicopters to disaster zones. He urged the students to pursue helicopter-related studies.

Relief Efforts

Highlighting the positive public response to the Lushan relief effort was an outpouring of financial support for charities, including the government-linked Red Cross Society of China and private groups such as the One Foundation.

Within two days of the tragedy, thirty-six groups had raised about 266 million yuan for earthquake-related causes, according to the China Foundation Center.

A sizable amount of these donated funds covered the costs of critical response teams, said Chinese Charity Research Center Director Wang Zhenyao. Money went toward buying supplies ranging from hydraulic jacks and mobile phone chargers to rubber boots and bandages, he said.

Moreover, the fund-raisers were less bureaucratic than in the past. Since the Wenchuan tragedy, which sparked debates over the role of non-profit charities in helping disaster victims, the central government’s Ministry of Civil Affairs has given charities more room for flexible fund-raising and spending.

No longer does the ministry require that all donations go to only a few charities, such as the Red Cross. Nor does it require an administrative process for handling donations. Instead, the ministry simply requires proper government supervision and guidance for charitable activities.

Nearly 60 percent of contributions for the Wenchuan quake went directly to government agencies, while much of the rest had to go through government-operated charities before reaching victims.

The Red Cross’ image was severely tarnished in 2011 after a woman named Guo Meimei said she was living lavishly as the mistress of a Red Cross official. That scandal may have affected Lushan-related donations to the Red Cross, which as of April 24 totaled about 80 million yuan, compared to 129 million raised by the private One Foundation.

The China Foundation Center organized a fund-raiser tied to twenty-three groups involved in the Lushan response, calling it the Autonomous Action Alliance of Chinese Foundations for Relief of the 4/20 Earthquake. Participants pledged to account for all money received and allocated, and agreed to scrutiny by donors and the public, as well as government regulators.

“We hope the relief efforts … will be an important step toward restoring public faith in charitable organizations,” said Xu Yongguang, vice director of the China Youth Development Foundation, one of the twenty-three groups.

Companies also pitched in. For example, at least twelve online and/or telecom companies including Baidu, Sogo, 360, and China Mobile’s Sichuan division opened free information platforms to help survivors find missing friends and relatives.

Local taxi companies gave free rides and some hotels free lodging to rescue team members and journalists. China Post and courier companies offered free services as well.

Still, charity umbrella organizers such as Zheng Yiling, director of the non-profit Huaxia Public Welfare Service Center, wish more could be done toward forming organizations that help disaster victims. Zheng’s organization’s predecessor, the Huaxia Public Welfare Federation, was founded in 2009 by more than 250 non-governmental organizations that participated in Wenchuan relief efforts, and wanted to prevent competition and conflicts among volunteer groups in the future.

The Huaxia group played a major role in helping victims of the 2010 Yushu earthquake in Qinghai province, Zheng said. Some 156 organizations participated, bringing in more than 1,000 relief workers including volunteers and spending more than 70 million yuan on supplies.

Huaxia sprung into action immediately after the latest quake, arranging for more than seventy organizations to support relief efforts in Lushan, in concert with the YouChange China Social Entrepreneur Foundation.

The organizing work that preceded the Lushan quake has had a positive effect in the latest victims’ aid activities. Relief groups are working “faster” and are “more professional, more rational” than in years past, said the charity research center’s Wang.

“There’s no way that there can be too many volunteers in the disaster area with nothing to do,” said Wang. “By integrating our skills with people’s needs in the disaster area at the appropriate time, citizen organizations and volunteers can be of great benefit.”

One active volunteer was Liao Quanfu, a farmer who traveled to the quake area from the nearby Guanghan area to offer his time and energy.

Liao, who also volunteered at the Wenchuan earthquake site, calls himself “a professional with disaster relief experience.” He thus felt qualified to vocally urge Lushan officials to install trash bins and public toilets as soon as possible.

“We must get rid of this garbage as fast as possible!” Liao told reporters at the scene shortly after the quake, pointing to a hand-written sign on his car exhorting officials to launch a clean-up. “We must get portable toilets installed as fast as we can!”

Three days after the quake, Liao spoke with Caixin again after he drove eight soldiers participating in relief efforts to a scene of quake damage. He said he’d noticed that government officials had indeed responded to his pleas by installing streetside garbage bins in Lushan. He said sanitation had improved markedly, and felt proud to have made a difference.