China's next hurdle: shelter earthquake survivors

Officials need tents and a long-term plan for the stream of refugees.

Peter Ford
MEETING NEEDS: Volunteers collect trash from earthquake victims' shelters in Jiangyou, a big city near the quake's epicenter in Sichuan Province.
Peter Ford
MAKING DO: Liu Ming, who was left homeless in last week's earthquake, washes her daughter's hair by the shelter where she is now living.
Peter Ford
RECEIVING AID: Earthquake victims sift through clothes donated by citizens from around the country.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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