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Planners guide China on quake rebuilding

Two months after an earthquake ravaged much of Sichuan province, workers are diligently salvaging bricks to restore a 6th century Taoist temple damaged in the disaster.
Image: Erwang Temple
Bish Sanyal of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, second from left, and other experts tour an earthquake-damaged temple near Dujiangyan, China, on Thursday. The group of international urban planners want to help China look beyond emergency response and toward long-term reconstruction.Robert F. Bukaty / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two months after an earthquake ravaged much of Sichuan province, workers are diligently salvaging bricks to restore a 6th-century Taoist temple damaged in the disaster.

As China begins to look beyond emergency response toward long-term reconstruction, experts on post-disaster planning warn that expectations should be realistic since rebuilding will take years.

"I saw them cleaning the bricks one by one," said Robert Olshansky, an urban planner at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who has studied post-disaster reconstruction.

"You keep doing that, in a couple of years, you'll be done," he said, before cautioning, "Be patient. It takes a long time."

Olshansky was among two dozen international experts who came to Sichuan this week to assess the damage from the 7.9-magnitude quake, which claimed nearly 70,000 lives and left 5 million homeless.

It is the first visit by such a large gathering of urban planners and disaster recovery experts to the quake zone, where many mountains were raked clean, towns collapsed into heaps of rubble and shoddily constructed schools were flattened.

The trip was co-organized by Zhao Jinhua, an urban planner at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Getting job done
Zhao had seen news coverage of how the earthquake had devastated the region and wanted to find a way to help his homeland. His idea was simple: Could the tragedy be used as an opportunity not just to rebuild — but to do it right?

China "is very good at short-term response but less so at systematic longer-term work. That's why I brought in international experts," said Zhao, a doctoral student in urban planning.

Zhao tapped into the China Planning Network, an international group of academics that study urbanization in China, to assemble a stellar list of experts from Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley and MIT, as well as experts from Europe, the United Nations and Tokyo Metropolitan University in Japan.

"You don't want all the energy consumed by the initial response. ... These are experts on urban systems who look at longer-term city recovery," he said.

Aftermath up close
First on the group's agenda: See the damage inflicted in Dujiangyan, a city of 700,000 about 55 miles south of the quake's epicenter.

They were taken by bus through the main streets, where bare shells of broken apartment buildings remain standing but empty. Rows of blue and white tents — part of hundreds of temporary resettlement camps throughout the province — lined the sides of the road, a visible reminder that an estimated 80 percent of the city's residents have been displaced.

Commercial shops were largely shuttered while bulldozers and backhoes rumbled at sites across the city. Blue fences surrounded flattened lots where the worst-hit buildings had been demolished.

But their first stop was high above the city at the badly damaged Two Kings Temple, a 1,500-year-old Taoist sanctuary set in the hills overlooking a river. A dozen workers in hard hats were busy sifting through debris with bare hands to salvage bricks to be used in reconstructing the historic site.

The tour, organized by government officials, included a 10-minute stop at the site of a three-story gym that had dramatically pancaked in one corner, before the experts were herded back on the bus. The brief visit reflected the sensitivity that remains over accusations that poor construction of buildings, particularly at schools, had contributed to the huge loss of life.

'Small slice of damage'
The half-day trip showcased only a fraction of the quake's power, said Steven French, an urban planner from the Georgia Institute of Technology who creates computer models that assess damage by earthquakes.

"We saw a pretty small slice of damage today," he said. "I'd rather we'd gotten closer to the epicenter. I'd like to have seen what happened in the rural areas. I wanted to see how the landslides affected the areas."

Still, French added that the trip was a rare chance to see a disaster zone, given China's historic reluctance to open up to outside assistance.

The day ended with a forum led by Chengdu's Vice Mayor Liu Pu, who told his guests he hoped to "learn a lot of international best practices on reconstruction."

Uncertain times
Government leaders said an initial recovery plan, to be finalized next month, calls for the bulk of rebuilding to be completed within three years, and a more complete renovation to be done within five years.

Nicolas Retsinas, director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, encouraged his hosts to have a vision but remain flexible. He urged them to communicate their plans honestly with quake victims. And he suggested that the tragedy of the quake ultimately could be turned into the chance to rebuild a better city.

"This does present you with an opportunity. If all you do is reconstruct what was there before, you only turn back the clock. You need to do more. What kind of city do you want this to be in the future?" he said.

In the end, local leaders will need to grapple with how to combine speed with careful deliberation, said Olshansky, who has studied post-disaster recovery in the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan, the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"This is only two months after the quake. It's an extremely confusing time and there's a lot of uncertainty," he said. "I think the main thing we can do is give reassurance. It's nice for them to know that it was the same for everyone else."