China Faces Aftershocks, Flood Fears

China continues recovery efforts after a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit central China on May 12, 2008, and rendered millions of people homeless.
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

CHENGDU, China, May 27 -- More than two weeks after a catastrophic earthquake, a pair of powerful aftershocks collapsed hundreds of thousands of homes in central China on Tuesday, as soldiers and engineers worked feverishly to prevent a swelling lake from inundating nearby towns.

No deaths were immediately reported in the aftershocks. Many of the more than 400,000 homes that collapsed, according to the official New China News Agency, were already badly damaged by a 5.9-magnitude quake that rocked the area shortly after the initial, May 12 earthquake.

Still, the tremors in Qingchuan county, in Sichuan province, and Ningqiang county, in neighboring Shaanxi province, were a further reminder that the crisis in this region, and the attendant anxieties of its people, are unlikely to dissipate any time soon. More than 67,000 people have been reported dead, and about 21,000 are missing.

The homes of as many as 14 million people were destroyed or severely damaged by the 7.9-magnitude quake, and the Chinese government is scrambling to establish shelters. Many survivors, after having been kept in tents, are now expected to be moved into semi-permanent, prefabricated homes. Others are not yet out of immediate danger.

On Tuesday, officials evacuated 80,000 people from a valley that officials fear is at serious risk of being submerged in floodwaters from a nearby lake. Tangjiashan Lake was formed after the earthquake poured mud and rocks into the Jian River in northern Sichuan province and created a barrier dam.

All afternoon Tuesday, a large Russian cargo helicopter made trips to ferry earthmoving equipment from a base at the nearby town of Leigu up to the dam site. State media broadcast pictures of the excavators at work, attempting to dig out a controllable escape route for the 300 million cubic yards of water pooling in the lake. Work continued into the night.

The government had already ordered 80,000 people to move to higher ground, away from the expected path of the water.

Over the weekend, 1,800 soldiers hiked to the dam area, carrying dynamite that could be used to help clear a channel. "We are prepared to get rid of the trees by chopping and explosion," Liu Ning, chief engineer at the Ministry of Water Resources, said on state television.

Officials had said it could take 10 days to clear a channel.

The lake water rose to 2,380 feet Monday, only 85 feet below the lowest part of the barrier, the Reuters news agency quoted Liu as saying. On Tuesday, the water level rose another six feet, the New China News Agency reported.

Liu said the evacuations were necessary because of the rising water. "It's better for them to complain about the trouble that the evacuation would bring than to shed tears afterwards," Liu said.

Nearly 30 lakes formed by the earthquake-triggered landslides are rated as dangerous, and 379 damaged reservoirs are considered at "high risk," state media reported.

At a meeting Tuesday presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao, China's State Council said removing the danger from Tangjiashan Lake had become one of the "most pressing jobs at hand" in earthquake relief efforts, state media reported.

For survivors not threatened by the lake, the challenge of moving on seems no less daunting. In Leigu on Tuesday, Yang Xing Gui, the Communist Party secretary of a nearby village, said it was unclear whether the government would even permit rebuilding.

"Everything is destroyed," Yang said. "There is no land to farm."

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