May 03, 2013 07:46 PM

Earth Moves, China Rallies


Rapeseed was ripening in the lush fields ringing the village of Renjia when a local farmer, forced from his home, stepped into the sea of green stalks and pitched a tent.

Less than a day earlier, the farmer and each of his more than 3,000 neighbors in Renjia had been rendered homeless by a powerful earthquake that rocked southwest China's Sichuan Province.

The April 20 quake devastated the village and other parts of mountainous Lushan County. As of May 3, officials said, the temblor registering 7.0 on the Richter scale had killed 196 people and injured 11,740.

It was the second major quake to hit Sichuan in five years. More than 87,000 people died in a 2008 disaster centered just north of Lushan in Wenchuan County.

The latest quake left tranquil Renjia, near the epicenter, ravaged like the target of a heavy artillery attack. Every house was destroyed or seriously damaged, and at least nine locals died. Survivors endured fearful aftershocks as late as April 24.

The quake also left behind questions about the effectiveness of China's disaster preparedness system, building safety standards, the need for helicopters in rescue operations, and whether the nation's earthquake experts could have done more to warn Sichuanese before the quake struck.

Meanwhile, volunteers and charities rallied to the side of the quake's victims in ways that reflected an improved climate for non-profit groups and disaster-response lessons learned after the Wenchuan disaster.

Lushan, which has been inhabited for at least 2,300 years, is no stranger to seismic events. The county lies at the southernmost end of a geological formation called the Longmenshan fault, historically among the most active of eight, major seismic belts that crisscross Sichuan. More than 25 destructive earthquakes have been recorded on the Longmenshan fault since 1169.

Renjia is a typical Lushan village, sitting at the base of two mountains. In this peaceful and close-knit community, most families share the surname Ren. Their ancestors moved to this area about 20 generations ago during the Ming Dynasty from central China's ancient Huguang region.

Before the quake, the village's old and new structures told of its history. Some brick structures dated to the early 1900s, and some were still identified on outside walls as housing "educated youth" during the 1960s, when many young urbanites in China were assigned to work in the countryside.

Each local farmer raises crops such as rapeseed, corn and rice in the surrounding fields. Life is hard, since an average farmer's plot is less than one mu (666 square meters). Most of the village's young adults leave to seek a better life in cities.

On the morning of April 20, 86-year-old villager Cao Shida was sitting on his bed when the earth started shaking. Dogs were barking and pigs squealing as he ran outside, just before the roof collapsed onto the head of his bed. His son Cao Mingde and a grandson also escaped.

Across the street, a young man named Ren Tianlong ran into the street in his underwear just before his house collapsed. He heard his neighbor Wang Mei, a 41-year-old women, screaming for help from the rubble of another home. The screams soon fell silent; the woman and her daughter had died.

Stunned villagers immediately started digging for survivors. Corpses of the dead were, following local tradition, carried in coffins – black for adults, white for children – up a steep slope to the top of a nearby mountain. As many as a dozen mourners carried each coffin, chanting along the way. Sometimes those in front prostrated and those in the rear raised their arms high, carefully balancing the coffin as they hiked up the mountainside trail.

Villagers set off fireworks and honored the dead by burning ritual paper money. Blackened ashes from burnings and blood stains colored patches of rubble-strewn village streets for days after the disaster.

Families with nowhere to go squeezed into hastily built shacks, or slept in trucks. Hardly anyone walked through the village; instead, they fearfully ran past leaning walls and roofs on the verge of collapse.

Villagers eventually retrieved rice and other essentials from their ruined homes, and pitched tents in the rapeseed fields. Many villagers said they had worked hard and saved money for years to buy the homes that, in a few seconds, the quake had destroyed.

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