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Chinese grapple with homelessness after quake

Li Ande ran a convenience shop, a solidly middle-class citizen in the quiet tourist town of Dujiangyan. Two days later, he's squatting under a tarp with seven members of his extended family.
China Earthquake
People have erected tents to live in because buildings remain unsafe due to structural damage and aftershocks in Dujiangyan in southwestern China's Sichuan province on Wednesday. Ng Han Guan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Li Ande ran a convenience shop, a solidly middle-class citizen in this quiet tourist town, until the earthquake pulverized his store and his home. Two days on, he's squatting under a tarp with seven members of his extended family.

"We've got no choice. Our house is gone," Li said, sitting under the plastic sheet tied to a tree with an umbrella propped up nearby for added shelter. Meanwhile he waits, hoping "the government can do something for us."

While Beijing mounts a military mobilization to rescue people trapped under rubble since Monday's massive quake, the struggle to find food, water and shelter goes on for the survivors.

At least tens of thousands — and perhaps many more — are homeless. Much of the Maryland-sized disaster zone is teeming with refugees crammed into sports arenas, government tent camps or rickety makeshift shelters of plastic sheeting.

The quake made a mess of Dujiangyan, known for charming tea shops along the Min River and a 2,000-year-old dam that kept flooding at bay and helped farming flourish. The ground is littered with building debris, orange peels, soggy newspapers, noodle cups and dog droppings. Tents line parks and any open ground. Toilets are rare.

Government response is uneven
The government's response to the challenge has been uneven so far. Thousands were staying at a sports arena in Mianyang city, bused there from devastated towns, and some were living in relief tents pitched in tidy rows. But many were forced to fend for themselves.

"I feel lucky," said 44-year-old Zhang Mingfu, who built a wood and plastic shelter with a straw floor along a road in An Xian, where about 30 family members were staying after fleeing a valley where towns were obliterated. "It's the people in the mountains that we are worrying about — they are our relatives."

For now Zhang's stoicism, common among rural Chinese who are accustomed to hard work, seems to prevail. Many survivors blamed the situation on forces of nature and shrugged off questions with a simple "What can you do?" But there were grumbles of discontent that seemed likely to grow if conditions do not improve.

"There's no way we would have to be here for one month," said Tang Yiren, a 66-year-old restaurant security guard who was staying under a red, white and blue tarp in a Dujiangyan park with about 10 co-workers.

Tang said he hoped to return home in three or four days. But his rented apartment was damaged in the quake, its walls cracked.

There has been no official tally of those who cannot return to their homes. The group includes not only those whose homes were destroyed but also people afraid to go indoors and others ordered into the streets by authorities for fear that aftershocks will bring standing buildings down.

Tens of thousands homeless
The number could easily be in the hundreds of thousands. The Civil Affairs Ministry has said half a million houses collapsed. In Ya'an, a city of 1.5 million, 16 people died but 40,000 were left homeless, state media reported, citing the state disaster relief headquarters.

About 100 families were staying at a tent camp in one Dujiangyan park. Relief workers provided food: crackers, instant noodles and simple boxed meals. Dinner on Wednesday was plain noodles topped with bean sprouts. One man had constructed a makeshift stove with bricks and stir-fried a big mound of fatty pork in a wok.

To pass the time, people chatted and played Chinese checkers until rescuers discovered bodies from a collapsed building 20 yards away from the park.

"The crematorium trucks were here, they were taking the bodies," exclaimed two female colleagues of Tang, the security guard.

A few were trying to find their own housing solutions. At another camp, Yan Liting and her daughter sipped bowls of free rice porridge while helping relatives move their belongings to her undamaged apartment.

"They lost their families and their homes were destroyed," Yan said, sitting on a bundle of clothing wrapped in cloth. "They've been sleeping in makeshift shelters."

Others were simply heading out of town. Fang Bohe and his wife tried to get a ride to the airport in the provincial capital of Chengdu.

"We'll see about coming back sometime," he said. "Until then, we'll stay with my son in Shanghai."