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13 years after Sichuan earthquake: looking back and moving on

Survivors gather on the street in Qushan, Beichuan, one of the hardest-hit areas in the earthquake, on May 12, 2008. (Photo provided by Song Weiguang).


The Young Reporter looks back at the Sichuan earthquake 13 years ago today. The magnitude-8 quake devastated the region, killed nearly 70,000 and injured close to 375,00. Almost 18,000 people are still missing. People all over China as well as in Japan, Thailand and the Philippines reported tremors. Now, more than a decade later, the psychological effects are still being felt but China is more prepared.

Some of the main hard-hit areas in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.

May 12, 2008 -- 2:28pm

“I felt the sense of shaking but at first I didn’t care about it too much,” said Wang Zhangling, who was in primary school in Mianyang, Sichuan when the earthquake hit.
“The whole building began to shake heavily, and teachers shouted at us to run,” he said. Now a 20-year-old university student, Mr Wang said he remembered many classmates were crying as they rushed to the playground.

Close to 16,000 died, thousands of them schoolchildren, and more than 100,000 were injured in Mianyang. Seven schools in the city collapsed.

Long Zhengyin, now 51, said he remembered clearly the landslide when the quake struck the rural college he worked in as a security guard in Wenchuan county in Aba prefecture.

“Dust blotted out the sky, and it was very dark,” he said. “The first thought in my mind was ‘I’m definitely going to die’.”

Peng Sien, now 19, experienced strong tremors in Chengdu, 80 kilometres away from the epicentre.

“I’ll never forget that moment when I ran downstairs in our kindergarten, holding one shoe in my hand,” she said, explaining that it was nap time when the earthquake hit.


The aftermath

For a month, Mr Wang and his family lived in a temporary tent because of aftershocks that continued until June 1. Every night they placed an upturned beer bottle in front of the tent to alert them to aftershocks. 

Many in Chengdu refused to move back to their homes although the aftershocks had died down. They chose to live in tents or sleep in the car, said Ms Peng.

 For a long time, she said she couldn’t help thinking about ways to survive if she is ever trapped in the ruins of another earthquake.

“You know, people in Sichuan usually won't panic about earthquakes because there are too many earthquakes every year, but things are different after the Wenchuan earthquake. So many people died,” she said.

“Every time when I watch films related to that earthquake, I feel a great shock,” said Tan Hongbin, who was a college student when the earthquake hit. Many of his schoolmates and friends were killed or injured.

The town of Yingxiu near the earthquake epicentre was destroyed, Li Shuming, an engineer with the Engineering Appraisal and Reinforcement Research Institute of Shandong Jianzhu University, remembers from his visit a month later.  He was part of a team to help rebuild the town where 5,462 people died.

Student accommodation in Yingxiu high school partially collapses. The first floor of the five-story building is entirely gone. There are no students in the building when the earthquake hits. (Photo provided by Li Shuming.)
Fifty-five teachers and students in Yingxiu high school died and some bodies are still buried in the ruins due to the limitation of rescue conditions. (Photo provided by Li Shuming.)
A classroom in a collapsed teaching building in Yingxiu high school along with other damaged buildings in Beichuan's old town has been preserved as the heritage park of the Sichuan earthquake. (Photo provided by Li Shuming. )
The unknown building in the photo is under construction in Yingxiu when the earthquake hits. The red banner says: “Change the ruins into the home,” hung by the Yingxiu government and Dongguan assistance group in Yingxiu. (Photo provided by Li Shuming. )

The impact of the earthquake still existed a year later, especially on the mental state of many survivors, said Song Weiguang, a doctor working in Shandong, who went to Beichuan, one of the worst-hit areas with 8,605 deaths, to help local hospitals in 2009. 

“Many officials and my colleagues who lost their loved ones tend to be less enthusiastic at work,” he said, and he added that no one wanted to talk about the earthquake.     

“It is very scary. You can feel that humankind is so small in the face of natural disasters,” Mr Wang said.


Preparing for the future

After years of rebuilding, the Chinese government has looked to ways to minimize casualties and damage in disasters in the future.

Song Weiguang (in white, top middle) and his colleagues from Shandong train rural doctors in Xiangquan, Beichuan in 2009. The team also helped the local government with hospital reconstruction, post-earthquake vaccination and treatment. (Photo provided by Song Weiguang.)

China has invested heavily in early warning earthquake reporting systems and plans to achieve early warning capability nationwide by 2023, according to the China earthquake network centre.

Currently, China has established an early-warning system in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, Fujian, Lanzhou and the border areas of Sichuan-Yunnan province.  

 The government also designated May 12 as “ National Disaster Prevention and Reduction Day” from 2009 and has set up multiple educational activities including earthquake drills in primary and secondary schools around the country, lectures and competitions on knowledge of common natural disasters.


In this screenshot of a live broadcast, Yang Fang, an interpreter from the Wenchuan earthquake Museum, explains undersea seismic detectors to the audience at the fifth final of the National Science Contest on Earthquake Prevention and Mitigation in Miyang, Sichuan today. People can watch the competition through several social media platforms in China.

The China Earthquake Administration held several online activities this week, such as webcast forums on the prevention of natural disasters and visits to natural disaster science museums through online live streaming. 


《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.


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