China's double earthquake leaves thousands homeless

By Pierre Béland, Beijing
It was pitch-dark on the evening of October 25 when a frightening tremor shook She Sheng Tai's house. Instinctively, he yelled at his family members to rush outside. The eight of them bumped into a crowd of their fellow villagers standing in the dust from houses that had crumbled. The earthquake had measured 6.1 on the Richter Scale.

Sheng Tai looked back. Luckily, his newly built house still stood, apparently unharmed. Then, within seven minutes, as he started to shiver from the cold, a second shock came which completely flattened his home. This one was marginally weaker at 5.8.

It was 20:48. All of a sudden, Sheng Tai's family no longer had a place to live and they still owed RMB 10,000 (US$ 1,200) on the pile of rubble they were staring at.

The twin earthquakes had struck 127 villages and towns of Minle, Shandan and Sunan counties in the middle of Gansu province in northwest China. They had killed 10 people and left 49 injured, while more than 137,000 people huddled in the open air in sub-zero temperatures. As many as 14,000 houses had been destroyed and 3,000 head of livestock hurt or killed.

In a quick response, the Chinese authorities sent tents, food and other relief items to the earthquake area. The Chinese Red Cross, from its branches in Gansu and Shanghai as well as from its headquarters in Beijing, also rushed emergency goods and supplies to the scene including quilts to help protect earthquake victims from the bitter night cold. They were supported by the International Federation which released 100, 000 Swiss francs from its Disaster Response Relief Fund for the purchase of quilts. It would mean that over the next few days, thousands of people could be lodged in tents, or in plastic sheeting wrapped around whatever could be turned into a temporary home.

"The situation is worse than appears at first sight," reports Niels Juels of the International Federation, who visited the disaster area. "Although damage was not at first spectacular, I saw that everyone was sleeping outside, that most houses were either collapsed or cracked from the roof down to the soil. Army personnel were busy tearing down dozens of structures that still stood and I realized that all these people would have to spend the winter in very flimsy temporary shelters."

She Sheng Tai now knows that his village of Yaozhai suffered so heavily because it happened to sit at the epicentre of the quakes. "The whole village stood that first night out on the very spot where we had spent the day threshing our wheat crop. There was still a lot of hay around to wrap the children and old people in so that they could keep warm. Now, many of us will have to make do with little plastic homes," he says.

She Sheng Tai shows how his neighbour has turned the small cart behind his tractor into a cramped, if movable, home. Others, like Li Hui Fang, are trying to alleviate the pain by concentrating on how to save the remains of their homes. "I think mine will be okay if I can only find a large piece of wood to prop the roof up," she hopes.

Although there were at least 400 aftershocks throughout the region over the next few days, luckily, they were minor. The real issue now is what happens over the next few months.

"Beyond the dramatic destruction that followed the first two strikes, the challenge for us now is the often forgotten aftermath of a disaster - how to see thousands of homeless victims safely through the coldest part of the year which is still to come," says Su Juxiang, secretary general of the Chinese Red Cross.