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China's massive postquake tasks

Still short 2 million tents, it must also rebuild homes and jobs for 5 million.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 17, 2008

Massive effort: A month after the earthquake in Sichuan Province, China is rushing to house survivors. So far, 107,000 temporary houses (above, in Mianzhu) and 1.2 million tents have been provided.




Now comes the hard part.

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The Chinese government has won plaudits at home and abroad for its quick and efficient response to the earthquake that devastated large parts of Sichuan Province one month ago, leaving 85,000 people dead or missing.

Bringing the area back to life, however – restoring houses and jobs to 5 million homeless survivors – poses new challenges that are likely to stretch officials' ingenuity well into the next decade, experts here warn.

"The most difficult thing for the government will be resettling victims," says Peng Zongchao, a crisis management expert at Tsingua University's Public Policy Institute in Beijing. "They will have to rebuild 3 million houses at least."

For the time being the authorities are putting off that monstrous task. Having averted the danger of a major flood by draining the biggest quake lake, they are now pouring all their efforts into keeping victims watered, fed, and healthy while they throw up temporary housing anywhere they can find a flat piece of land.

They are moving fast: 107,000 units were ready for occupation by last Friday, according to official figures, while another 250,000 were in the pipeline. It will probably be many months, however, before enough of this sort of housing has been built, given the numbers of people needing shelter.

In the meantime there are too few tents. Only 1.2 million have been delivered to the earthquake zone so far, the government says, well short of the 3 million it has said are needed, apparently because Chinese manufacturers cannot make them fast enough and no international organization can provide the number needed.

A month after the quake, continuing aftershocks mean that very few people have returned to their homes, even to ones left standing. "Our houses look fine from the outside but they are very badly damaged inside, so people are still sleeping on the streets," says Chen Shoujun, a volunteer relief worker in Jiangyou.

Some people have returned to work – the government says 80 percent of damaged factories have reopened – but the economy in the quake zone is still basically at a standstill, making jobs hard to find.

At the moment, refugees say, the mood in the tent camps that have sprung up along every road in the region seems stoic. "People are getting over their grief about the earthquake and starting to face reality because we don't have any alternative," says Xiao Xinqing, a mother living with her small boy in a communal tent by the stadium in Mianzhu. "We have to get on with our lives."

That attitude is not so widespread among the thousands of parents still angry at the way their children died in schools that collapsed, they believe, because the buildings were shoddily built by corrupt local officials.

Clearly afraid of their criticism, the Chinese government has banned newspapers from reporting on the issue, according to Chinese journalists, and on Sunday, police barred bereaved parents from gathering at Juyuan Middle School where they had planned to observe the 35th day of mourning, a significant moment in local tradition.

Over the weekend, a photo of a skinny, twisted piece of steel rebar – hinting at poor construction at Juyuan Middle School where it was taken – disappeared from a public exhibition of quake artifacts, where it had been prominently displayed. Exhibit organizers did not provide an explanation.

China quake response vs. US response to Katrina

China's rapid quake response has raised comparisons with the US's handling of hurricane Katrina in 2005, which was widely criticized as inefficient. The events differed greatly, both in scale of disaster and recovery approach. Hurricane Katrina displaced 800,000 people; the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit China's Sichuan Province left 5 million homeless.

After the hurricane, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided emergency trailers as homes. It used military facilities and contracted hotels and even cruise ships for shelter. People were also sent around the country. More than 30,000 people sought refuge at the Superdome in New Orleans but were evacuated after it became unsanitary and dangerous.

China's quake survivors – who have largely remained in the area – have received 1.2 million tents and 107,000 temporary houses, but millions more still need housing.

Both disasters left trouble in their wake that slowed recovery work. The US coast remained flooded for weeks. Sichuan Province is facing aftershocks and "quake lakes."

One month after hurricane Katrina, 52,000 National Guardsmen and active- duty military personnel were supporting operations in Louisiana. China sent at least 113,000 troops to Sichuan Province.

One month on, Katrina donations hit $833 million. China says it has received billions. Private aid played a big role after hurricane Katrina. The American Red Cross and Disaster Recovery Centers together helped 100,000 people in the first 30 days. Volunteers have flooded China's quake area, but authorities have limited their work.

Sources: AP, Bloomberg, Xinhua, FEMA.