13 May, 2008

Death toll in China quake nears 12,000

Warnings about a major earthquake taking place in China’s Sichuan province were, would you believe it, given by toads, two days before the tragedy.

On Saturday, local media reported that hundreds of thousands of toads appeared on the streets of Manzhu, a city about 60 km southeast of Wenchuan, the county worst hit by Monday’s earthquake.

A resident surnamed Liu was quoted by The China Daily as saying that he saw countless toads killed by passing vehicles as they crossed roads, and that he had never seen anything like it.

Unfortunately, no one had the presence of mind to understand why the toads were out on the streets. Experts have said animals can give advance notice of quakes, as they sense tremors before they happen.

Furthermore, a seismologist had warned more than five years ago that a strong earthquake was likely in Sichuan.

“Sichuan is virtually certain to experience an earthquake measuring above 7 in the next few years,” Chen Xuezhong, a senior researcher with the geophysics institute of State Seismological Bureau (SSB), wrote in a paper published in December 2002, in the periodical Recent Developments in World Seismology.

A day after the powerful 7.9 magnitude quake struck, state media said rescue workers had only just reached the epicenter in Wenchuan county — cut off by the disaster and where the number of casualties was unknown. China said it would welcome international aid but would not yet allow foreign relief workers into the affected area.

Heavy rain, which had contributed to the difficulty of reaching the epicenter, continued to impede efforts and a group of paratroopers called off a mission to the area, Xinhua said.

The death toll rose to 11,921, Wang said. At least 4,800 people remained buried in Mianzhu, 60 miles from the epicenter, Xinhua said, citing local authorities.

The casualty figures were expected to rise and remained uncertain due to the remote areas affected by the quake and difficulty in finding buried victims.

The earthquake caused a wide swath of damage across central China, leveling buildings and severing roads and communications. It sent people rushing out of their offices across the country in Beijing, and was felt as far away as Vietnam.

Nearly 10,000 people died in Sichuan province alone and 300 others in other provinces and the mega-city of Chongqing, Xinhua reported.

As the death toll from a devastating earthquake in south-western China continues to climb, the disaster is proving a credibility test for the government, whose mandate is derived from maintaining stability and social order and providing for the welfare of people.

As China no longer regards the death toll in natural disasters as a state secret, pressure for a rapid response and complete transparency in the disclosure of information has built up. The disaster comes on the heels of a major human calamity in neighbouring Burma where rescue efforts and aid to millions of people struck by a cyclone have been impeded by the secrecy and opaque nature of the military junta. China is eager to set a different example.

While initially slow to release information about the full scale of devastation, the authorities and the state media quickly rebounded, gradually revising the death toll higher overnight as more details of the quake came to light. Gruelling details of some 900 students buried into the debris filtered into the news first, before the whole scope of destruction emerged.

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