SICHUAN PROVINCE, China – I was still responding to the death and destruction that had devastated Myanmar when I read the news: “Massive Earthquake Strikes Central China.” A few weeks later, I’m surrounded by death and destruction yet again. But despite the horrific 7.9-magnitude quake that rocked Sichuan Province, I am also surrounded by remarkable hope and resilience.
Today in the village of Yao Jin, 17 miles from the epicenter, I watched an old woman emerge from a crack in a huge pile of rubble that was once her house. She crawled out with a beaming smile and laughing because she had found her cooking pot. Another family beckoned me to come and eat lunch with them in the shade of their tent, erected next to the remains of their home in which they lost everything they owned.
The human spirit in the wake of natural disasters always amazes me. Even in Myanmar, forgotten victims were able to rejoice at having survived the storm. But the Chinese seem to take courage to the next level. I saw the same thing last year, after the earthquake in Yunnan province; the Chinese are fighters.
The government recovery effort has been astounding. Whether or not the heightened response is an effort to recent criticism, the Chinese government is setting a new benchmark in internal crisis response. If disaster relief were an Olympic sport, China would take the gold medal.
Entire towns of pre-fabricated homes have been erected for victims, complete with shops and restaurants. The city of Beichuan was completely reduced to rubble in one minute. Beichuan’s survivors are now living comfortably in government camps and being cared for by streams of volunteers from all over China. Every other person is wearing an “I love China” t-shirt, some with the Olympic rings printed on the back.
But due to the scale of the disaster, there are many smaller villages in more remote areas that have received little or no assistance. Operation Blessing has been working since day one to deliver relief goods to villages in the quake zone. Staff from our Chengdu office have good connections in the area and we have been alerted to some villages in the mountains that were obliterated and in urgent need.
In the village of Yao Jin, 17 miles from the epicenter, we were able to repair the village’s damaged water supply and construct latrines and shower facilities for the 200 villagers. They are living in temporary shelters and like so many, want to reconstruct their homes and get on with their lives.
We are working in conjunction with the local government to provide machinery to small villages in a deal where we provide the machines and they provide the diesel fuel. The excavator and jackhammers we provide are being used to clear debris and salvage belongings and materials.
Much progress can be seen in just the few short days I have been here. So much has been cleared, and once chaotic debris is now sorted into piles of reusable materials. Seeing the results of their efforts, the people are now working tirelessly with both women and men motivated to cooperate with each other and OBI to reestablish their lives and continue on. In this relatively simple but effective way, OBI is working as a catalyst for recovery and inspiring hope in the wake of great loss.
On the way to one of the villages, Yang Yim, I was shocked as we drove up a winding valley road. The quake had loosened giant boulders, which rained down the mountainside and smashed through factories and homes. Like a scene out of a super hero movie, giant meteorite-like rocks were embedded in the side of buildings and the road was full of craters. In one home, a rampant boulder had smashed through one wall and out the other like a cartoon.
We arrived in the village to find the 700 inhabitants constructing temporary shelters for themselves from material they were able to salvage from the wreckage of their homes. Nineteen people died in the village, however it would have been considerably more if they had not been out working in the fields. Yang Yim lies even closer to the epicenter.
The quake has robbed the village of its water supply. For hundreds of years villagers have drawn water from a mountain spring, but, according to the villagers, “somewhere in the mountain” the ground shifted in the quake and now the spring has been reduced to a trickle. The closest supply is now 1.5 miles down a steep winding hill and it is backbreaking work for the villagers to carry small supplies to their camp each day.
We are bringing in a hydrologist in the coming days to search for water, and when we find it, we will construct a well. The villagers say they will live in the camp for a year until they can reconstruct their homes, but I suspect they will be there even longer.
One very real threat we are all living under is the risk of the “quake lake” bursting and causing catastrophic flooding. Our team is currently based in the city of Mianyang. Most of the 5.7 million residents are nowhere to be seen, having fled the city since it lies downstream from the lake. Some businesses are open but most have been vacated and sandbags placed across the doors.
Yesterday the government tried to reduce pressure on the lake with explosives. This sent a torrent of water downstream and we were effectively trapped in the quake zone as an already weakened bridge was closed to traffic. After hours of waiting, we were eventually allowed to pass though, making a hard day even more exhausting.
With constant aftershocks and the threat of flooding, this disaster is still unfolding. What does give me confidence is that no matter what happens, it seems the government is committed to helping the victims on an unprecedented scale. Our own response has also been one of the most rewarding I have worked on. The victims we are serving are some of the most gracious and hopeful people I have ever encountered. They have escaped death and are now looking to the future.
One resident of Yao Jin who lost everything summed it all up for me when, between hammering concrete blocks in search of his bank book, told my translator that he was “looking forward to the Olympics.”
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