China Struggles to Shelter 5 Million Homeless

( [email protected] ) May 21, 2008 02:23 PM EDT
AN XIAN, China (AP) - Schools slowly opened Wednesday in some of China's newly formed tent cities, where the government is struggling to shelter many of the 5 million people left homeless in last week's earthquake.
Residents collect their belongings from earthquake damaged houses at Hongbai, in Shifang county, in China's southwest Sichuan province Wednesday May 21, 2008. (Photo: AP Images / Greg Baker)

AN XIAN, China (AP) - Schools slowly opened Wednesday in some of China's newly formed tent cities, where the government is struggling to shelter many of the 5 million people left homeless in last week's earthquake.

The camps, like one at the base of Qianfo mountain in the disaster zone, offer some stability — along with food, medical care and even classes for children — to those whose lives were upended.

"After the quake, we couldn't sleep for five days. We were really, really afraid," said Chen Shigui, a weathered 55-year-old farmer who climbed for two days with his wife and injured father to reach the camp from their mountain village. "I felt relieved when we got here. It's much safer compared to my home."

But there's not enough room to go around.

The government issued an urgent appeal Tuesday for tents and brought in the first foreign teams of doctors and field hospitals, some of whom were swapping out with overseas search and rescue specialists.

The switch underscored a shift in the response to China's worst disaster in three decades from an emergency stage to one of recovery — and for many, enduring hardship.

At Chengdu's Qingyang district sports center, Gao Luwei, 9, played with friends Wednesday after attending classes in the camp's one-room elementary school.

"I don't know how long we'll be here, but I hope we are here the shortest time possible," said Gao, whose regular school in the resort town of Dujiangyan was damaged in the May 12 earthquake that killed more than 40,000 people.

One official said it was important for children to return to their established routines of school and play to help overcome the trauma of loss.

"The most important thing is to return some semblance of normalcy to the kids' lives," said Zhu Jiang, a Chengdu city official who acts as spokesman for the camp.

"We don't want them to feel like they're refugees, but like they've simply moved to another place for a sort of extended holiday," Zhu said.

Compounding the housing problem, rains were forecast for parts of Sichuan province, including Wenchuan near the epicenter of the quake.

"Mainly in those hard-hit areas there will be light rains during the daytime. At night, there will be moderate rains in some of those areas," said an official from the Central Meteorological Station. The official refused to give his name.

On the second of a three-day national mourning period, the authoritarian government appeared to be moving to rein in the unusually free reporting it allowed in the disaster's first week. Most major newspapers carried near-identical photographs on their front pages of President Hu Jintao and other senior leaders with their heads bowed — a uniformity that is typical when state media censors direct coverage.

The May 12 earthquake's confirmed death toll rose to more than 40,000, with at least 10,000 more deaths expected, and officials said more than 32,000 people were missing. The State Council, China's Cabinet, said 80 percent of the bodies found in Sichuan province had been either cremated or buried.

Authorities rushed to dispose of corpses, burning them or laying them side by side in pits. Vice Minister for Civil Affairs Jiang Li said officials had begun collecting DNA samples from bodies so their identities could be confirmed later.

Rescues — becoming more remarkable by the hour — continued Tuesday, but the trickle of earlier days had slowed to a drip.

A 60-year-old woman was pulled from the rubble of a collapsed temple in the city of Pengzhou 195 hours after the quake, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported. Wang Youqun suffered only a hip fracture and bruises on her face during her eight days in the rubble, Hong Kong-based Phoenix Satellite Television reported, citing air force officer Xie Linglong.

Jiang said 5 million people were homeless and that the government was setting up temporary housing for victims unable to find shelter with relatives. He said nearly 280,000 tents had been shipped to the area and 700,000 more ordered and that factories were ramping up to meet demand. Sichuan's governor said 3 million tents were needed.

In this encampment in An Xian, hundreds of large blue tents dot the flat farmland where rice and barley are being grown. The dried furrows provide orderly markers, lining up the temporary shelters with military precision in the fairly tidy area the size of a football field.

Some 4,600 people are being housed here, 90 percent of them from the mountains around Chaping village, about 20 miles away, which remains cut off by road, said camp director Yang Jianxin.

"All these refugees have lost their homes — their clothes and possessions are buried," he said. "We are doing what we can to help them."

As he spoke, the ground rumbled with the latest of what he said were hundreds of aftershocks felt in the past week. Refugees nearby gasped, and some ran from their tents in confusion, before calm settled after the 10-second tremor.

The entire quake zone is jittery. The Sichuan Seismological Bureau, one day after triggering a panic in the provincial capital of Chengdu by issuing a public warning of major aftershocks, said in a statement Tuesday the city was not a high risk area and was strong enough to withstand big tremors.

In the An Xian camp, more people are expected to show up in the next few days as more survivors make their way down from the mountains, Yang said. Some 500 people are either dead or missing from the Chaping area's main town, which still has about 1,800 survivors living in the mountains, he said.

Many of them, like Chen, made the 10-hour-plus hike down from the mountains with only the clothes they were wearing.

"We didn't sleep until we got here," Chen said. "I carried my father on my back part of the way, and then others helped me carry him down."

The camp has a clinic, food distribution points, toilets, a trash dump, and even plans for a temporary school. A red banner reads "Love is all around. We never feel lonely."

A giant, colorful pile of donated clothing lies in one corner, and dozens of women looking through it. Men in red vests regularly sweep and clean the area. Another area is a donation drop-off for a stream of well-wishers.

Among them was Tan Xuqiong, a 36-year-old teacher with a shiny black Prada bag slung over her shoulder, who came with her 18-year-old son to drop off boxes of water, food, and medicine.

"My hometown was only slightly affected. When I see these people living like this, I think it's so miserable. The contrast is shocking," said Tan, who is from Deyang city.

Each person in the camp receives regular daily rations: three bottles of water, a package of instant noodles, bread, and some crackers. Families also received small radios and copies of the local Mianyang Daily newspaper.

Loudspeakers regularly blare announcements about hygiene and reminders to get daily health checks — a precaution against possible disease outbreaks.

The clinic is staffed by eight physicians and six nurses — all volunteers with China's Red Cross. Running from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., the medical staff sees about 1,000 patients a day, said Dr. Ye Mao, a 51-year-old orthopedic surgeon from Guangdong province.

"The biggest problem is the density of the camps. If an infection breaks out, it can spread very quickly," he said. No outbreaks have been reported.

After initially refusing foreign help, China is now allowing in medical and rescue teams. A Russian mobile hospital arrived Tuesday in the provincial capital of Chengdu, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, and other medical teams were headed in from Taiwan, Germany, Italy and Japan.

The disaster has raised some sensitive issues for the government about building standards, especially for schools, and about whether authorities did enough to reach survivors quickly.

Xinhua reported Tuesday that 129 students and 10 teachers who were trapped in the village of Xu Yong were flown out two days after local officials said all outlying villages had been reached.

Chen, the farmer, said refugees in his camp are getting what they need to survive, and they are grateful for the help despite the crowded conditions. His family shares a tent with 10 other people.

His 46-year-old wife Liu Yingchun was wistful: "I still feel bad because I can't forget all the things we lost. I used half my life to get all this and then suddenly I've lost everything. I don't know if I can ever get back what I had."

Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen contributed to this report from Chengdu, China.

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