67 Killed, 100,000 Displaced by Yunnan Quakes

Two earthquakes in south-west China have killed at least 67 people (as of 1:02 a.m., local time) and forced more than 100,000 from their homes. Xinhua described the damage and initial relief efforts.

Sixty-seven people have been confirmed dead and 731 others injured after multiple earthquakes struck a mountainous region in southwest China on Friday, authorities said.

[…] Two quakes measuring 5.7 and 5.6 on the Richter scale hit a border area near Yiliang in Yunnan and Weining county in Guizhou province at 11:19 a.m. and 12:16 p.m. Friday, respectively.

[…] Yunnan’s civil affairs department said the quakes destroyed 6,650 houses and damaged 430,000 others. More than 100,000 residents have been evacuated and 100,000 others are in need of relocation.

Wen Jiabao quickly set off to visit the affected area, while Hu Jintao urged immediate relief efforts, Xinhua added.

Although the quakes were of only moderate strength, the area’s mountainous terrain and relative poverty magnified their impact. Landslides increased the destruction and blocked roads, slowing access to remote communities where Xinhua warned that further casualties may yet be discovered. In addition, poorly constructed rural buildings were particularly susceptible to the tremors. From Reuters:

Many structures in the area are built with mud and timber, making them more prone to collapse, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

“On the other hand, extricating people trapped in these structures may be easier than from under concrete/brick homes, meaning that there could be many more injuries proportionate to the number of deaths,” it said.

In 2008, about 87,600 people were killed in the southwestern province of Sichuan when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit. Many of the victims died in the rubble of homes and schools built without adequate steel reinforcement.

One elementary school reportedly collapsed on Friday, killing three students and trapping others.

A Global Times editorial commented that the extent of the damage, like a stream of food safety scandals and the recent collapse of a months-old bridge in Harbin, exposed the limits of China’s development and “shattered illusions of growth”:

A quake as strong as Friday’s, which was measured at 5.7 on the Richter scale, could have caused fewer or even no casualties in a more developed region.

It once again served as a reminder that China has far from having completed its modernization process. The country as a whole is still prone to calamities that prey on its weaker aspects. Three decades of fast development have ushered China into the great cause of modernization, but that time was merely the beginning.

Many poorly constructed houses could not withstand the quake and were reduced to rubble. People who have illusions about China’s national strength have to wake up to the fact that many people still live in houses with similar conditions. It is impossible for them to be immediately relocated to safer ones any time soon.

[…] China should seek fast and quality development at the same time. The safety of lives is at the core of such an ideology. Houses, bridges and food should be safer and that’s where modernization should be unswervingly headed.

The editorial’s criticism of development that places face over safety echoes widespread anger at Beijing’s ill-preparedness for heavy flooding in July.

See also video reports from the BBC and from CNN: