The Sichuan Earthquake: an addendum

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Like Austin and Lin Yang, I too have been in the earthquake-affected part of Sichuan. I went on Tuesday and for the first time. A couple of hours drive from the shopping malls, broad roads and middleclass apartments of Chengdu and there it is. At first, you notice things like the odd collapsed wall, or an occasional gap in the rows of houses. Then these signs start to appear more frequently through the SUV window. Here, a roof has caved in; over there, a pile of bricks marks the place where a building once stood. All of a sudden, the random devastation that everyone talks about when it comes to earthquakes is everywhere apparent—one family has lost everything and is still camping out miserably in what was their courtyard, but on either side of them other families can been see nonchalantly going in and out houses that are untouched. Rows of temporary shelters, distinguishable by their sky blue roofs, stand out against the mist and deep green of the mountains.
Eventually, it is the landscape itself that has been torn apart. Giant fissures rent the mountainsides and the boulder-strewn beds of what must have been terrifying landslides still score the uplands. Parts of the old tarmac road have collapsed onto a valley floor below. Another valley has been flooded, broken pine trees poking out of the strangely still water like the masts of a sunken fleet. If the effects of the earthquake can cause a quiet, otherworldly fear to take hold in the visitor months after it has happened, how apocalyptic must it have seemed at the time?
Signs of reconstruction begin to emerge, surreally, from the swirling fog—a work gang walking silently in single file, a bulldozer skirting the edge of a sharp drop. But unlike the area Lin Yang and Austin toured, reconstruction here appeared strikingly inadequate, and that is the point I want to make. Having been told that “reconstruction” was taking place I, and I suppose many people, assumed that it was on the epic Chinese scale, with vast work brigades swarming the uplands and endless processions of yellow earthmovers, backhoes and trucks shaping the new Sichuan. Once you see the hopeless muddiness and fragility of the landscape and the road network, however, it becomes immediately obvious that the pace of reconstruction, at least in some parts, is far more uneven than anyone outside of the province realizes. All some of the mountainous areas allow is the slow, painstaking effort of small teams, doing much if not most of the work by hand. This in turn means that not everyone is going to be re-housed before winter, and if you’ve felt the bite of the November air in upland Sichuan, you will understand what a frightening prospect this is. Six months after the disaster, spare a thought for the victims of the Sichuan quake. As Austin’s and Lin Yang’s forthcoming report will doubtless show, the ordeal for many is ongoing.

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