China's next hurdle: shelter earthquake survivors
Officials need tents and a long-term plan for the stream of refugees.
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Local people are better housed, some using furniture they have taken from their homes. Many of them are simply waiting until aftershocks end before moving back into their houses, if local officials deem them safe.Skip to next paragraph
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Tens of thousands of others in this town, however, will have nowhere to go, and the local government does not yet have anywhere to put them.
"Now we can ensure food and water, the next step will be to ask for donations of tents, and they will arrive very soon," says Feng.
In the meantime, the authorities are relying on 3,000 volunteers who are at the sharp end of caring for the homeless. Mostly young people, they spend their days collecting trash, spraying disinfectant, cooking food, distributing bottled water, handing out first aid supplies, and encouraging personal cleanliness.
As the government commandeers trucks and moves supplies arriving from all over the country to distribution points, ordinary citizens are ensuring their delivery to individual refugees here.
Sometimes they are doing jobs that might ordinarily be done by the government: A group of 30-somethings, who met on an Internet chatroom and who normally engage in social activities together, have set up a missing persons registration bureau at the wide crossroads around which rural refugees have gathered.
"If we don't have enough people there are volunteers to help us," says Feng. "But everything must be orderly. They must help the relief effort according to the government's general arrangements.
Awaiting government plans
Some volunteers say those arrangements are not always clear. "Most officials are doing a great job," says Chen Shoujun, a cellphone dealer who has become an unofficial leader of volunteers helping refugees from out of town. "But the city leader should have a clear plan of how to settle the victims, and I have not seen one yet."
The earthquake survivors, meanwhile, are grateful for the aid they are receiving, but many are worried about their flimsy shelter.
"All it would take is one thunderstorm and things would be terrible," says Dong Shaoqing, who arrived here last Wednesday with his family from a village in the mountains. "We hope the government can move us to a safe place."
Most are fatalistic about their immediate future and are simply awaiting instructions. "I don't know how long we will stay here," says Yang Afu, who lost his home in the earthquake. "We will abide by the arrangements the government makes."
The authorities also appear to enjoy considerable confidence for the time being. "The government must have a plan for us," says Zhao Zhongyu, kneeling on a blanket spread on the sidewalk. "But they've got lots of other things to do and they can't tell us yet."
Others betray more uncertainty. "We want to know our future and we want to know what the government has planned for us," says Shi Mingyou, standing bare-chested in the afternoon heat. "We don't know what the next step is."
Neither, for the time being, do the authorities. "How long it will take" to set up camps "depends on how many people there will be to deal with," explains Feng. "And that we cannot say.