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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Earthquake Diary

Earthquake Diary

Less than an hour’s drive from here is Dujiangyuan, the small town--previously famous only for its ancient irrigation system--that has become the focus of headlines the world over.

Here in Chengdu, only four days after what has been dubbed “The Great Sichuan Earthquake”, life has essentially returned to normalcy. Though most schools remain closed, some universities have resumed classes, and many shops and businesses have already restarted.

The earthquake at this point, for many Chengdu residents, is a psychological game of probability and worst possible scenario. Against the background of everyday life is the constant preying on the nerves of the possibility of another large quake. Jitters kick in with each successive apartment-jiggling tremor, lasting perhaps a few seconds but strong enough to remind us of what can—and has already—happened. The questions residents ask one another: “Is it alright to sleep inside tonight?”, “Should we still stay together at all times by this point?” are pondered over unrelenting waves of rumours and prophecy.

Text messaging—as with increasingly organized, rapidly mobilized protests—is the key instrument of viral rumors. They continue to spread, almost invariably warning of the “next big one.”

“My uncle works for the government’s earthquake bureau and he said there will be a big earthquake at 2:00 and 10:00 P.M.” one of them read. And, with people as shaken up and fearful as they are, they continue to react accordingly. They brace themselves for round two of the original quake, at whatever time it is supposed to strike, then, according to the next rumour, the following one, and again, a few hours after that, ad infinitum. To date, these wild speculative flurries have proven completely untrue, but not enough for those who cry wolf to stop calling.

Let’s hope the wolf does never come again, given how hungry for lives the first one was.

On Wednesday the water was turned off in parts of the city, due it appears to the leaking of toxic chemicals into Chengdu’s water supply. The rumour mill immediately kicked in, whispering that it would be off for a week. Within minutes, shops all over the city sold out of water as rampant hording began. A trip to the supermarket displayed bare beverage aisles a la past decades of patchy Soviet goods provision. With water no longer available, shoppers filled their carts with soda and orange juice: surely not the best way to combat dehydration in the event of a water crisis.

The rumours, yet again, proved to be unfounded.

Outside, from university campuses to parks and fields to any possible suitable space, makeshift villages of canvas have formed. Many have pitched hastily bought tents; others have made ingenious use of tarpaulin and rope, as thousands continue to sleep outside for fear of their home collapsing. Walking around camps earlier on there was a certain sense of adventure in the air. A friend described the evening of the quake as “like being at a music festival.” With work and school on hold, people found themselves on “emergency holiday,” and wasted no time in doing as the Sichuanese do so well: breaking out card decks and Mahjong tiles for some camp-out leisure and conversation.

But more recently, as days of sleeping outside with limited access to amenities lengthen, a sense of lethargic desperation has crept in. Some have begun to return to their apartments and dorms, but others have still been denied entry by cautious authorities and landlords. Others, stripped down to shorts and sandals, beneath canvas shade and supplies of instant noodles, choose the relative peace of mind of remaining outside, weathering the uncomfortable humidity of late Spring.

Meanwhile, the relief effort carries on, with fundraiser benefits, donation drives, volunteer sign-ups and the like. At a benefit event on Thursday evening, foreigners donned “I love China” t-shirts—perhaps to demonstrate their equal concerns for victims and the desire to take active part in the relief work--as they bid on wine auctions and filled in volunteer forms with relevant technical skills. In addition to the Red Cross and other NGOs heavily involved in the rescue effort are individual, self-motivated efforts, such as that of some of the Israeli students living in Chengdu.

I caught up with one of them, a Krav Maga instructor who I previously interviewed for a magazine article, who has been personally involved in the rescuing. When two Israeli travelers went missing and the country was considering sending its own rescue team for them, Eliran and a friend traveled out to the town where the women were supposed to have been traveling. They found the girls, in shock and attempting to walk back--a delusional idea--and took them back to Chengdu for surgery. One of the women had her broken jaw operated on and another lost a few fingers. It turns out that a restaurant had collapsed while they were inside.

My Chinese teacher has gone to a hospital in Deyang to help out with providing care and basic assistance to the many victims. Less direct in form but equally valuable are the many people who are dropping off blankets, sleeping bags and non-perishables at desperately under-stocked hospitals and field sites.

Despite all of these efforts, it’s difficult not to feel increasingly skeptical of the chances of pulling out more survivors from the rubble, this long after the initial quake. The death toll, well over 20,000 people at this point, is estimated to reach 50,000 people by the government.

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