China has had a lot of experience dealing with natural disasters. Last Saturday marked the 10th anniversary of a devastating earthquake that killed nearly 100,000 people. Commentator John Richard Schrock was in China at the time... and remembers how that nation responded.
Commentator John Richard Schrock is professor emeritus at Emporia State University, where he spent decades training future biology teachers. Dr. Schrock continues to teach and lecture at several universities in China. He lives in Emporia.
Professor Schrock is also editor of the Kansas School Naturalist.
Wenchuan Earthquake - 10 Years Later
By John Richard Schrock
Ten years ago this month, the citizens of west central China finished lunch and returned to their workplaces and classrooms.
It was at 2:28pm, on May 12 that the devastating Wenchuan earthquake leveled a line of towns and villages cutting through mountainous Szechuan Province. Measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale, the quake killed over 80,000 people.
It also destroyed schools, roads, businesses and housing. The homeless equaled the combined populations of Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.
Ten years ago this month was also the most intense two weeks of my life. I was in China, working with dedicated biology teacher trainers at five of China’s normal universities in the daytime... and watching China’s response in real-time on television each night.
China’s premier Wen Jiabao was put in charge of the rescue effort. He was trained in geo-mechanical engineering. Decisions for the rescue and recovery operations were made with the head, not with the heart. Earth moving equipment went in first. Then ambulances.
Engineers from the Peoples Liberation Army were brought in by helicopter. They act like our National Guard. Their engineers hopped from helicopters hovering just above ground level because there was little flat ground on which to land.
As survivors were ferried out by helicopter, camera crews from the press jumped aboard and rode back to document the rescues. There was no time for censorship. So each evening I joined the people across China who were glued to TV sets watching both miraculous rescues and the recovery of buried bodies. Military engineers gave their rations away to civilians. They worked until they collapsed from exhaustion. With over 20,000 significant aftershocks, some were caught working under buildings. Some of the injured who flew out in helicopters were in uniforms.
Television reported the medical supplies needed. And across China, doctors sent what they had. Factories worked around the clock, providing tents for immediate shelter. Pre-fab schools were set up where flat land could be found. Where schools could not be set up within a week, students said goodbye to their parents and were sent by train to schools in other provinces where seats were added in classrooms for them to finish the school year.
It's been ten years now. I taught entomology this last fall at Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University, and several of my students were from Szechuan Province. They had been in upper elementary school, 13 or 14 years old, when the earthquake hit.
I spoke to them about what they saw in the years that followed. They remembered this tragic time quite well, but described how everything was built back in just three years.
Even the World Bank was amazed at the speed with which China mobilized governmental agencies and private businesses for reconstruction. Each earthquake-affected county was partnered with an unaffected province. And China spent 16 billion in US dollars.
By the end of three years, over 99 percent of the renovation was complete. Century-old devastated buildings were replaced with modern earthquake-resistant buildings and roads.
We know what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Like all countries, China has its share of problems. But when it comes to disaster response, China seems to be well ahead of the curve.