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DISASTER MANAGEMENT
Past Disasters Offer Lessons

To those watching the relief efforts unfold on live television, images of the search for survivors must bring back vivid memories of the 8-magnitude earthquake that devastated Sichuan province on May 12, 2008, and left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing. That disaster, China's worst in three decades, prompted the government to enhance efforts on disaster management on an epic scale - mobilizing rescue teams, pushing studies on related technologies and stockpiling relief materials and equipment. Following the lessons of 2008, the China Earthquake Administration adjusted its reaction plans, said Huang Jianfa, director-general of its disaster and emergency management department.
by By Fu Jing and Yan Jie in Yushu, and Hu Yinan and Cao Li in Beijing
Yushu, China (XNA) Apr 22, 2010
Qinghai terrain poses serious challenge to rescue operations after deadly earthquake, report Fu Jing and Yan Jie in Yushu, and Hu Yinan and Cao Li in Beijing.

When 10-year-old Drolma Tsekyi struggled out of bed just past 7 am last Wednesday, she could not hide her envy of her two younger sisters. Chimed Tsekyi, 6, did not have to leave home for another hour, giving her more time to snooze, while 4-year-old Yangkyi Laktse was still too young for school.

In the end, Drolma was the lucky one.

Just as she reached school that day, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake hit her native Yushu, a remote county in the mountains of Qinghai province. She survived but her sisters were both crushed to death when their home collapsed.

At least 1,706 people have perished in the tremor, the strongest and deadliest to hit China in almost two years.

More than 15,000 rescuers, medical workers, soldiers, armed police and volunteers, including many monks from nearby Buddhist monasteries, are racing against time to find miracles among the rubble.

As Yushu is a predominantly ethnic Tibetan area, the monks' proximity to local culture underpins the relief efforts, and Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu has hailed their active participation in the rescue operations. Hui arrived in Yushu to oversee the aid mission just hours after the earthquake.

Hundreds of victims of the disaster were cremated in a mass ceremony on Saturday as up to 1,000 monks chanted prayers for the deceased.

Although bodies need to be disposed of quickly to prevent the danger of epidemics sweeping through the earthquake zone, authorities have pledged to respect local funeral customs. However, many of the dead are unlikely to receive traditional Tibetan sky burials, in which the body is left on hilltops to be eaten by vultures, due to the sheer number of victims.

Drolma's two sisters were among those cremated over the weekend. Lozang Choden, her 33-year-old father, dug their bodies from the rubble with his own hands on Wednesday, and had been chanting sutras and praying for them ever since.

Lozang, his wife Tsomo, and Drolma were among five families still living in self-made tents beside their destroyed properties in Xianfengxiang, a community of about three dozen households just 400 meters from Gyegu town's central square.

The disaster flattened all their clay and brick-houses, and left at least 10 dead. "Our only hope is that the State rebuilds our homes," Lozang told China Daily.

In a neighboring community, the 18-room house that Tsering Tashi built and rented out collapsed. The 38-year-old estimated his loss at more than 1 million yuan ($146,000). He now lives with his wife - also named Tsomo - and two of his former tenants by the collapsed houses on just sheets and quilts.

Lessons learned
To those watching the relief efforts unfold on live television, images of the search for survivors must bring back vivid memories of the 8-magnitude earthquake that devastated Sichuan province on May 12, 2008, and left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing.

That disaster, China's worst in three decades, prompted the government to enhance efforts on disaster management on an epic scale - mobilizing rescue teams, pushing studies on related technologies and stockpiling relief materials and equipment.

Following the lessons of 2008, the China Earthquake Administration adjusted its reaction plans, said Huang Jianfa, director-general of its disaster and emergency management department.

In less than two years, the national rescue team has risen from 200 members to 500, while the professional, rapid-response teams established in 27 provinces have boosted the total number of relief workers nationwide from 3,000 at the time of the Sichuan earthquake to 5,000 today.

Servicemen and women with the People's Liberation Army also now receive regular emergency response training.

"We have equipped our teams with better technologies and facilities, too," said Huang. In Yushu, communication has been improved by using wireless facilities and maritime satellite systems, while remote-controlled aircraft have helped rescuers by sending aerial images of the earthquake-hit regions.

Although lessons from 2008 have helped authorities prepare and respond to the Qinghai tremor, Yushu poses many new challenges to the ongoing relief efforts.

Gyegu, the township hardest hit, is the seat of the Yushu prefecture government and home of 100,000 people. Surrounded by mountains and 4,000 meters above sea level, its narrowest strip is just about three square kilometers between two mighty hills. A 10-meter-wide river runs through this otherwise dry town covered with heavy dust, where the weather changes in a blink of the eye from sunny to snowy or windy.

During spring, nighttime temperatures in Qinghai can drop as low as -10 C, making life difficult for residents living in tents and those with only quilts to keep them warm, and dramatically reducing the chances of survival for those still trapped under the rubble.

Yushu county, which includes Gyegu, lies in the heart of the Sanjiangyuan region (its name reflects it is the source of three waterways that spawned Chinese civilization: the Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang rivers). People here live well below the national poverty line and per capita income in 2008 was about 1,900 yuan, barely enough to afford a month's rent in cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

Although its remote setting is seen as a treasure, it is also a major problem for rescue teams.

Options for transporting materials by road are extremely limited.

After the earthquake hit in Yushu, the most immediate aid came from Qamdo in the Tibet autonomous region, which is some 500 km away, and places scattered throughout the neighboring Garze prefecture in Sichuan. But most of the government's relief materials have been stockpiled in Xining, Qinghai's provincial capital, which is 840 km away from Yushu. The drive takes about 12 hours and includes crossing six bumpy, 4,000-meter mountains and two bridges that are reportedly "dangerous and under repair".

Since the earthquake last Wednesday, roads to Yushu have been jammed with cars and trucks ferrying in aid, rescuers, medical workers, reporters and monks. Volunteers were asked to stay away from the disaster zone after many who rushed to the scene developed severe altitude sickness, putting extra pressure on already stretched medical resources, said Wu Tianyi, director of the Qinghai Institute on Plateau Medical Science. However, undeterred, thousands have continued to pour into the region every day.

The only other access to Yushu is by air, but the plateau airport, which is about 30 km from Gyegu and is China's third highest after those in Qamdo and Lhasa in Tibet, only opened last August and cannot operate at night.

Services resume Despite enormous challenges, Yushu is slowly trying to get back on its feet. The city's two largest temporary settlements at Gyegu stadium and King Gesar Square now offer free rice and porridge for the survivors, and monks are performing tent-to-tent religious services.

Free phone services and makeshift medical centers have been set up in and around town, while smoke from cooking stoves can once again be seen on street corners.

Although computers at the post office are still not working, basic postal services have resumed. Over the weekend, handwritten letters and packages were set out by the truckload.

Shi Qi, manager of a company that makes temporary houses in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, led a team of staff to Yushu on Wednesday. By Saturday, they had built four sets of makeshift houses, each with five 20-square-meter rooms, in the Gyegu stadium.

These houses will be offered to medical workers at the stadium, said Shi, who aims to set up another 14 sets as soon as possible.

Sources with the local government told China Daily that most of the schools would resume classes from Friday.

Classes had already resumed at makeshift houses of the Yushu Orphans' School starting Saturday afternoon.



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