With as many as 14 million earthquake survivors in urgent need of housing, China is beginning to rebuild from scratch.
It is doing so in places like this mountain plain in Sichuan province, where workers are erecting a new town of blue-roofed homes for 20,000 people. Construction got underway here late last week, less than three miles from Beichuan, a town wiped out in the 7.9-magnitude quake.
Fields of wheat and corn have been overrun with earth-moving equipment as construction crews assemble long rows of cookie-cutter houses with walls of Styrofoam sandwiched between two pieces of sheet metal. Builders vow the new homes will be ready by the end of June.
Would-be residents began arriving over the weekend. Originally from nearly two dozen villages scattered around Beichuan county, the people were bused here from an emergency shelter at a sports stadium in nearby Mianyang city. Among the first earthquake survivors to be moved to what is expected to be a permanent relocation site, they are living for now in a sea of government-provided tents next to the construction zone.
Finding room to build
Beichuan, nestled in a sliver of valley surrounded by mountains, will not be rebuilt because authorities deem the area too hazardous. Nearby Leigu, however, is situated along a broad, fertile expanse farther down the valley. Before the earthquake, it was a farming town of 18,000 residents. Most of the homes here, as in Beichuan, collapsed in the earthquake, and 1,000 people died. But the fields provide space to build, and now Leigu's survivors will have to make room for new neighbors.
The one-room dwellings are being built in caterpillar-like lines of 14, each 65-square-foot home attached to the ones next to it. There will be electricity and running water, but current plans call for every two homes to share a tap. Every 50 homes will share a bath house and a kitchen. The floors will be hard-packed dirt covered by plastic.
"It's not realistic to have concrete, attached floors at this point," said Wang Di Sheng, a government official from Jinan, the capital of Shandong province, which provided the materials and is supervising the construction of 7,000 houses for the local authority. The dwellings are supposed to last up to three years while the government constructs a permanent community here.
Though spartan, these portable homes are a step up from the tents and tarps that have been the main shelters for millions of people displaced by the quake. China's top leaders have urged manufacturers and construction crews to rush production of the homes, as the rainy season begins and threatens to turn hundreds of tent cities into swamps.
Construction is quick. It took about 24 hours this week for a 10-person crew to put up one row of homes. First they erected a metal frame. Then they slid the walls and windows into pre-fabricated grooves, tightened screws and reinforcement rods. Then they fastened down the metal roof parts. Wiring and plumbing come later.
Chen Yan, 16, can watch the neighborhood going up from the edge of her tent city on the hill above the construction zone. She lives in tent No. 185, an 86-square-foot shelter that sleeps 10. She and her family are among the 384 people from Yuanxing village who survived the quake and are now registered to live here.
"This is better than in Mianyang," Chen said, referring to the stadium where the family stayed until coming here four days ago. At one point, the stadium housed 30,000 people but the government began relocating them in earnest in the past few days. Today the stadium population is about 7,000, an official there said.
Chen said she is settling into daily life in the Leigu camp, where the government provides food for three meals a day, plus cooking pots and staples. Electric lights are strung above most walkways, and there is a line of taps with running water along one side of the camp. There is a charging point for cellphones. Chen volunteers to distribute food each day and helps her mother, who is still shaky from the shock of the earthquake.
Government officials are trying to come up with a governing mechanism for the new neighborhoods. Chen and her family live in an area of the sprawling camp known only as the Registration Department Temporary Refugee Area, named for the government department in Mianyang city that is responsible for managing it. Her area sits next to the Construction Department Temporary Refugee Area.
Feng Guan Ming, 43, is a vice bureau chief of the Registration Department, and he works in 40-hour shifts with other vice chiefs of his department to manage this area, home now to 2,342 people from three villages. Feng said about 50 people serve on a self-governing commission for the refugees, with different committees for concerns such as security, dispute settlement and disease prevention.
One of the commission's first decisions was to build a playground for the 71 children under age 6 who live in their area. He's not sure when a school will be built or how people living here will find work and start to get back to normal routines.
"Everything had to be done in such a rush," he said.
'Lucky to be alive'
Yang Xing Gui, 46, Communist Party secretary for Yuanxing village, five or six mountains away, arrived here two days ago and said he has had time only to count people from the village and unload supplies. "Some people are very upset about not being able to return home," he said. "But many feel lucky to be alive."
Those who want to work can sign on with a construction crew and help clear land and put up the new homes. Luo Ying Ping, a manager with a local construction bureau, recruited about 100 people living in the tents. "They will get paid, but we don't yet know how much," he said as he supervised a dozen women using hoes and pickaxes to help level the corners of a field after the bulldozer's first few passes.
"We plan to train them to build these houses," Wang added.
As if to punctuate Wang's point, after the construction crew finished the first line of houses, a few men strung up next to them a red banner on bamboo poles. It read, "China Construction, Eighth Bureau, Second Company, will build beautiful homes together with refugees here."
Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.