Image: Wang Jinmu
Kari Huus  /  msnbc.com
Wang Jinmu, a retired factory worker, came to hard-hit Qingchuan to volunteer for relief efforts and became the de facto chef for the government staff.
By Kari Huus Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 5/25/2008 4:14:50 PM ET 2008-05-25T20:14:50

After a winding six-hour drive through the mountains north of Chengdu, the road descends into a broad river valley, where the town of Qingchuan is nestled. In normal times, it must be scenic and peaceful, but on Saturday it is teeming with homeless refugees carrying bundles of belongings, military units moving supplies and people crawling through piles of rubble trying to salvage useable materials. Thousands of blue tents and makeshift shelters line the banks of the Sand River and dot the surrounding hills.

Qingchuan, a town of 30,000, was so badly shaken by the May 12 earthquake that 95 percent of the buildings in town — those that haven’t already been flattened — will have to be demolished, according to a government official.

As night falls on Qingchuan, traffic along the river front slows to a trickle. With electricity still out except at a few resettlement camps, people retreat to their shelters, some sitting around small fires.  The narrow main street of Qingchuan, lined with vacant four- to six-story buildings, becomes a long black corridor, lit up only when the occasional truck drives through. 

The one place that does remain a flurry of activity after dark is the courtyard of the Qingchuan government compound, where relief work and planning goes until late into the night. In a tent lit by a single bare bulb, about 20 people sit at a long table listening to a briefing on disease prevention. Other tents have lines of computers for Chinese journalists and government workers. Around the perimeter are the damaged government offices that once housed the government workers — including one building that has been torn down because it had become too dangerous. A path over this pile of rubble leads to a small outbuilding that houses some overburdened toilets.

Kari Huus  /  msnbc.com
Government staffers work under a tent at the relief operations center in Qingchuan, China on Saturday.
All of this represents a lot of progress. All communication was cut off from the town for nearly two days after the quake, when the first rescue teams arrived. Since then, relief supplies have met the immediate needs of the refugees, but the emergency is far from over.

The worst hit places in Qingchuan county are villages like Donghekou, where at least 400 people died when landslides crushed it from both sides.  In total, officials say more than 4,300 people died and nearly 13,000 were injured in the county. An undetermined number of residents remain missing, and another 250,000 people are homeless, according a young government staffer named Xiang Zhichun.

‘We need another 70,000 tents’
“We need another 70,000 tents,” he said. “Just that number should give you an idea of how dire the situation really is.”

Beyond that, Qingchuan officials are concerned about that the relief lifeline — the road from Chengdu — could be cut off again by landslides triggered by aftershocks. Two other roads into the area were so badly damaged that there’s no prediction of when they will be opened, said Xiang.

“There are still aftershocks every day, and the rainy season is coming, so the (one remaining) road could be cut off again at any moment,” he said.

Officials also are concerned about 20 “quake lakes” that formed in this area when landslides blocked rivers. Troops are keeping a close eye on the lakes so they can warn refugees if one of the lakes threatens to burst through its banks and trigger flash flooding.

Reluctant to head back through the mountains in the dark, given the treacherous road conditions, we decide to stay. We are offered instant noodles with a display of hospitality that is both astonishing and embarrassing. We have food, we protest.

‘Sit down, eat’
“You’ve had a tough day,” said Wang Jinmu, a retired factory worker from faraway Jiangxi province, who came here to volunteer over a week ago and became the de facto chef for the government staff. “Sit down, eat.”

“Conditions are too poor,” said Xiang, with the reflexive humility of a Chinese host who is about to entertain guests. On this occasion, it is clearly true.

We choose to pitch our tent as far as possible from the precarious office buildings, and soon the compound finally grows quiet, except for a chorus of barking dogs scattered around town.

At 4:20 a.m., the ground begins to shake. Even more alarming than the jolting is the sound it emits — a howling sound, like a typhoon trapped in a tunnel. Nearby, the clinking of bricks hitting concrete can be heard. Everyone is awake in the compound, judging by the sudden rise of voices.

About two hours later, another long workday begins with the blaring of a newscast over a public address system.  It is a throwback to more revolutionary times, when every day started this way, in every city and on every train in the country. Today, the news is all about earthquake relief efforts, interspersed with patriotic calls to help the disaster zone.

As Wang dishes up bowls of rice porridge, people argue over how to best describe the night’s aftershock. “It was more of a woohooo,” said one, while others say it sounded more like a growl.

Aftershock not one of the strongest
But those who have been in Qingchuan for any length of time agree it was nothing compared to other aftershocks they have experienced over the last 13 days. They have become used to the earth’s grumbling.

We set out to see the landslide area that crushed Donghekou, which is about an hour off the road to Qingchuan.

Kari Huus  /  msnbc.com
Residents of Qingchuan who lost their homes or were evacuated from unsafe buildings are now living in hastily erected tent enclaves.
We get as far as the village of Guanzhuang, which is crowded with refugees who have come for the rice being distributed by the military. The landslide was just up the road from here, but soldiers have blocked it off and are not allowing anyone into the area. They say it’s too dangerous and there’s a massive crack across the road.

After the long drive out of the mountains, about an hour outside Chengdu, we stop to look in on the Mianyang Stadium, where thousands of quake survivors have been living since the disaster. While talking with residents, another jolt hits, and the stadium sways, sending a ripple of panic through the already traumatized crowd.

Later that we heard reports variously estimating the magnitude of this aftershock at 6.4 or 5.8 — a large quake either way — with its center somewhere near Qingchuan. 

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