China's next hurdle: shelter earthquake survivors
Officials need tents and a long-term plan for the stream of refugees.
A critical shortage of tents is casting a pall of uncertainty over the future of people left homeless by last week's earthquake here, as an army of local Chinese officials and volunteers struggle to cope with a stream of refugees.Skip to next paragraph
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In this city where 340,000 quake victims are living on sidewalks in makeshift shelters, "our biggest difficulty is where to put people," says Feng Jian, spokesman for the relief operation's local command center. "Every day more and more victims arrive here," the nearest big town for many in isolated Beichuan county. "We are under heavy pressure."
Among the displaced people, living with just the clothes on their backs and a strip of plastic sheeting above their heads, the mood is one of stoic resignation. "Life is not very easy, but we have no choice. We are homeless," says Zhao Fen. "How long we stay here depends on the government's decision."
As hopes of saving people trapped in the ruins fade, Jiangyou is on the front line of a new crisis – what to do with the homeless survivors.
Food and water are not a problem here: Relief distribution centers are piled high with bottled water and vegetables, while local people are providing rice and other cooked food.
But the primitive and unsanitary conditions in which the displaced people are living cheek by jowl in the open air have raised concerns of disease.
The danger is exacerbated, says Chen Jianbin, deputy head of the city's sanitation department, by a flaw that the crisis has revealed in the government's preset plan for dealing with natural disasters: There are practically no portable toilets to serve the flood of refugees that has taxed local officials to levels they had never anticipated.
"We have never experienced anything like this," says Mr. Chen. "It is inevitable that we did not take some things into enough consideration."
Reflecting the scale of the disaster, China allowed in the first foreign military aid Sunday, when two United States Air Force planes brought supplies, including 655 tents, worth $1.6 million into Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province.
The government also announced three days of national mourning to begin Monday at 2:28 p.m., exactly one week after the earthquake struck.
The Olympic torch relay, which has been held around the country this month, was suspended.
'Some days thousands arrive'
Coping with the homeless here is complicated by the fact that the authorities have only a vague idea of how many there are: Officials have compiled no register because "some days thousands arrive and we don't have enough time to take their details," Mr. Feng explains.
The boulevards of this city of 870,000 people are now lined with plastic shelters that victims have thrown up by themselves, or with the help of volunteers.