China's Earthquake

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Taking a step away from financial services for a minute, I thought it fitting to give a view from China of what’s happening regarding China’s recent earthquake. In previous disasters like the SEA tsunami a few years ago or the recent typhoon in Myanmar, I've often found myself detached from the reality of the situation by geographical distance. Although once again I still am to a certain extent, as Shanghai is a distance from the epicenter of the quake, the quake and its aftermath have dominated life in China for the past week and a half.

At 14:28 on Monday May 12th, a 8.0 magnitude (recently upgraded from 7.8) earthquake hit China about 90km from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province which was followed by a 3.9 quake centered in Tongzhou, on the outskirts of Beijing. The Chengdu quake was felt as far away as Shanghai and Beijing where buildings swayed and anyone on about the 12th floor or higher complained of dizziness and nausea. Many of the tall office buildings were evacuated as fears of aftershocks, but most suffered little damage. The devastation in Sichuan province however, was immense. While the capital city of Chengdu escaped massive damage, smaller towns outside of the 11M person metropolis, fared horribly.

A chemical plant collapsed in Shifang city burying hundreds of people and causing a leak of more than 80 tons of toxic liquid ammonia. In Juyuan town in Dujiangyan city, just south of the epicenter, a middle school collapsed, burying nearly 900 students and killing four ninth graders immediately. Some teenagers were struggling to break loose from underneath the ruins while others were crying out for help. Distraught parents watched as eight cranes were excavating at the site and ambulances were waiting. A tearful mother said her son, third-grader Zhang Chengwei, was buried in the ruins. Two girls said they escaped because they had “run faster than others.” Four students died in Chongqing’s outer Liangping County when the Wenhua Township Primary School collapsed. At least 100 children were injured. Towns of tens of thousands of people were buried almost instantly.

China was already in the media focus this year with the Beijing Olympics on the horizon. Differing versions of the truth have been exchanged between Western and Chinese media over the last few months concerning the March riots in Tibet and China’s overall human rights record is still in question by many. What is clear is that the Chinese government has done a remarkable job responding to the earthquake.

Premier Wen Jiabao was on the plane within hours of the quake headed towards the epicenter to survey the damage and coordination the rescue and recovery effort and China’s massive military has been mobilized to aid the efforts. Aid has poured into the country and unlike the situation in Myanmar, has not been hindered by the government. Recovery efforts continue as the death toll continues to rise. It now stands at 40,000, with over 32,000 people still missing. The missing are not limited to humans: three pandas out of 63 from China’s Wolong reserve are also missing; the status of the estimated 1,500 still in the wild is unknown.

The earthquake has also added to the nationalistic feelings of the Chinese people themselves. Monday afternoon at 14:28, exactly a week after the disaster, there was a three minute period of silence during which traffic stood still. A loud siren rang out for three minutes in major cities and people closed their eyes in remembrance of those who died in the disaster; many cried.

It has also lead to an incredible outpouring of emotion online. Posters to blogs and websites have poured out their feelings and emotions about the loss of lives and support for the government during this urgent time. Mixed in are cries of anger over what may have been substandard construction in numerous Sichuan schools that crumpled almost immediately, while commercial buildings in Chengdu and elsewhere suffered little. The Chinese are quickly adopting the internet as the choice medium for expressing their thoughts and feelings about the quake.

Almost as amazing as the stories of destruction are the stories of survival. A power plant executive named Ma Yuanjiang was pulled from the rubble yesterday after being buried for 179 hours. His left forearm was amputated, but he will survive. Li Mingcui, a 61 year old pensioner was pulled from the ruble after being buried for 164 hours. One of her lungs had failed and she was suffering from dehydration and numerous other complications, but will likely survive.

In one of the most heart rending moments so far, a few days ago, rescuers heard cries of a baby coming from the rubble and pulled out a three month old baby, who had only survived because she was sheltered by her mother, who had died many hours before. The mother’s hand was clutching her mobile phone where she had written the message: “My dear baby, if you can survive, do remember that I loved you!”

The earthquake is a massive disaster, the scope of which is difficult to imagine. If you are interested in donating, I would strongly encourage you to visit your local Red Cross website or which has more information.

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