Post-quake challenge: 5 million homeless

2008-05-21 02:20:05 GMT       2008-05-21 10:20:05 (Beijing Time)        China Daily      

Construction workers work on a resettlement site for the victims of the May 12 quake in Dujiangyan, southwest China's Sichuan Province, May 20, 2008. A resettlement residence project has started here on May 17 and is expected to be ready on May 27. [Xinhua]

The Chinese government is grappling with the next urgent task in the aftermath of last week's 8.0-magnitude deadly earthquake -- how to shelter up to 5 million residents in Sichuan Province who are now homeless.

Many were living in tent cities like one at the base of Qianfo Mountain in the disaster zone, offering some stability -- along with food and medical care -- to those whose lives were upended during the quake.

"After the quake, we couldn't sleep for five days. We were really, really afraid," said Chen Shigui, a 55-year-old farmer who climbed for two days with his wife and injured father to reach the Qianfo camp from their mountain village. "I felt relieved when we got here. It's much safer compared to my home."

But there's not enough room to go around.

The government issued an urgent appeal Tuesday for tents and brought in the first foreign teams of doctors and field hospitals, some of whom were swapping out with overseas search and rescue specialists.

The switch underscored a shift in the response to China's worst natural disaster in three decades from an emergency stage to one of recovery and rehabilitation -- and for many, perhaps, enduring hardship before a stable life.

The earthquake's confirmed death toll, according to the State Council Information Office, rose to more than 40,000 on Tuesday, with at least 10,000 more deaths expected, as officials said more than 32,000 people remained missing.

Bodies Cremated, DNA Collected

The information office said 80 percent of the bodies found in Sichuan had been either cremated or buried.

Authorities rushed to dispose of corpses, in order to prevent epidemics from happening. Vice Minister for Civil Affairs Jiang Li said that officials had begun collecting DNA samples from bodies so their identities could be confirmed later.

Rescues -- becoming more remarkable by the hour -- continued on the eighth day since the quake, but the trickle of earlier days had slowed to a drip.

A 60-year-old woman was pulled from the rubble of a collapsed temple in the city of Pengzhou 195 hours after the quake. Wang Youqun suffered only a hip fracture and bruises on her face during her eight days in the rubble, air force officer Xie Linglong, who led the rescue operation, told reporters.

Jiang said that up to 5 million people were homeless and that the government was setting up temporary housing for victims unable to find shelter with relatives. He said nearly 280,000 tents had been shipped to the area and 700,000 more ordered and that factories were ramping up to meet demand. Sichuan's governor said 3 million tents were needed.

In the Qianfo camp in Anxian county, hundreds of large blue tents dot the flat farmland where rice and barley are being grown. The dried furrows provide orderly markers, lining up the temporary shelters with military precision in the fairly tidy area the size of a football field.

Some 4,600 people are being housed there, 90 percent of them from the mountains around Chaping village, about 20 miles away, which remains cut off by road, said camp director Yang Jianxin.

"All these refugees have lost their homes -- their clothes and possessions are gone," he said. "We are doing what we can to help them."

As he spoke, the ground rumbled with the latest of what he said were hundreds of aftershocks felt in the past week. Camp residents gasped, and some ran from their tents in confusion, before calm settled after the 10-second tremor.

Residents Jittery about Aftershocks

The entire quake zone remains jittery. The Sichuan Seismological Bureau, one day after triggering a panic in the provincial capital of Chengdu by issuing a public warning of major aftershocks, said in a statement on Tuesday the city was not a high risk area and was strong enough to withstand big tremors.

In the Anxian camp, more people are expected to show up in the next few days as more survivors make their way down from the mountains, Yang said. Some 500 people are either dead or missing from the Chaping area's main town, which has about 1,800 survivors living in the mountains, he said.

Many of them, like Chen, made the 10-hour-plus hike down from the mountains with only the clothes they were wearing.

"We didn't sleep until we got here," Chen said. "I carried my father on my back part of the way, and then other residents helped me carry my dad down."

The camp has a clinic, food distribution points, toilets, a trash dump, and even plans for a temporary school. A red banner reads "Love is all around. We should never feel lonely."

A giant, colorful pile of donated clothing lies in one corner, and dozens of women looking through it. Men in red vests regularly sweep and clean the area. Another area is a donation drop-off for a stream of well-wishers from neighboring villages.

Among them was Tan Xuqiong, a 36-year-old teacher who came with her 18-year-old son to drop off boxes of water, food, and medicine.

"My hometown was only slightly affected. When I see these people living like this, I feel very sad. The contrast is shocking," said Tan, who is from Deyang city.

Each person in the camp receives regular daily rations: three bottles of water, a package of instant noodles, bread, and some crackers. Families also received small radios and copies of the local Mianyang Daily newspaper.

Loudspeakers regularly blare announcements about hygiene and reminders to get daily health checks -- a precaution against possible disease outbreaks.

The clinic is staffed by eight physicians and six nurses — all volunteers with China's Red Cross. Running from 6 am to 11 pm, the medical staff sees about 1,000 patients a day, said Ye Mao, a 51-year-old orthopedic surgeon from southern Guangdong province.

"The biggest problem is the density of the camps. If an infection breaks out, it can spread very quickly," he said. No outbreaks have been reported.

A Russian mobile hospital arrived Tuesday in the provincial capital of Chengdu, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, and other medical teams were headed in from Germany, Italy, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

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