China says flaws caused quake schools to collapse
Thursday, September 4, 2008; 2:21 AM
BEIJING -- China said Thursday a rush to build schools in recent years could have led to construction flaws that caused so many of them to collapse during May's massive earthquake.
Thousands of students died in the buildings in Sichuan province in China's southwest, and questions about lax construction methods have become a flashpoint for government critics.
Ma Zongjin, the chairman of an official expert committee on the May 12 earthquake, said poor quality construction materials were one possible reason more than a thousand schools were damaged in the quake.
"In recent years a lot of school buildings have been built in China and in this process of rapid development, some problems may exist," Ma told reporters in Beijing. "The structure of the school buildings may not be reasonable enough and the related construction materials may not be strong enough."
A key problem was the lack of reinforcement, Ma said. Large classrooms were often supported by columns that could not withstand major earthquakes, he said.
Ma did not further elaborate, although large classrooms are often considered problematic because they offer relatively little support for rooms in floors above and the presence of large numbers of students makes them more difficult to evacuate in an emergency.
Accusations of shoddy school construction have increasingly turned to anger against local authorities in Sichuan. Parents have protested at numerous schools in the province, demanding to know why schools collapsed even though nearby buildings were left standing after the 7.9 magnitude quake.
Engineers and building experts sent to the disaster zone to study damage have also raised questions about poor construction, bad urban planning and lack of enforcement of building codes.
The earthquake, China's worst disaster in three decades, killed nearly 70,000 people and left 5 million homeless.
Another 18,000 people are still missing, but Shi Peijun, the committee's vice chairman, said it was increasingly unlikely that they had survived.
"Given that it has been three months since the deadly earthquake struck, the hope of survival for those missing is very slim," he said.
Shi also said the quake resulted in direct economic and property losses of $122.7 billion, with 91 percent of the losses recorded in Sichuan province.
According to the Chinese government, up to three years will be needed to rebuild and restore jobs and services.
Since the May quake, the region has been hit by scores of aftershocks. A magnitude 5.7 quake struck the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan on Saturday, killing at least 38 people. More than 500,000 homes were damaged and 191,000 people were evacuated.