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Next challenge for China: Millions of homeless people

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

AN XIAN, China -- China is grappling with the next massive task in the aftermath of its earthquake -- how to shelter 5 million people left homeless.

By comparison, the 2006 population of Missouri was 5.8 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Many homeless Chinese were living Tuesday in tent cities like one at the base of Qianfo mountain in the disaster zone, offering some stability -- along with food and medical care -- to those whose lives were upended.

"After the quake, we couldn't sleep for five days. We were really, really afraid," said Chen Shigui, a weathered 55-year-old farmer who climbed for two days with his wife and injured father to reach the camp from their mountain village. "I felt relieved when we got here. It's much safer compared to my home."

But there's not enough room to go around.

The government issued an urgent appeal Tuesday for tents and brought in the first foreign teams of doctors and field hospitals, some of whom were swapping out with overseas search and rescue specialists.

The switch underscored a shift in the response to China's worst disaster in three decades from an emergency stage to one of recovery -- and for many, enduring hardship.

On the second of a three-day national mourning period, the authoritarian government appeared to be moving to rein in the unusually free reporting it allowed in the disaster's first week. Most major newspapers carried near-identical photographs on their front pages of President Hu Jintao and other senior leaders with their heads bowed -- a uniformity that is typical when state media censors direct coverage.

The disaster's confirmed death toll rose to more than 40,000, with at least 10,000 more deaths expected, and officials said more than 32,000 people were missing. The State Council, China's Cabinet, said 80 percent of the bodies found in Sichuan province had been either cremated or buried.

Authorities fearing unhygienic conditions have rushed to dispose of corpses, burning them or laying them side by side in pits. Jiang Li, vice minister for civil affairs, said officials had begun collecting DNA samples from bodies so their identities could be confirmed later.

Rescues continue

Rescues -- becoming more remarkable by the hour -- continued on the eighth day since the quake, but the trickle of earlier days had slowed to a drip.

Jiang said 5 million people were homeless and that the government was setting up temporary housing for victims unable to find shelter with relatives. He said nearly 280,000 tents had been shipped to the area and 700,000 more ordered and that factories were ramping up to meet demand. Sichuan's governor said 3 million tents were needed.

In an encampment in An Xian, hundreds of large blue tents dot the flat farmland where rice and barley are being grown. The dried furrows provide orderly markers, lining up the temporary shelters with military precision in the fairly tidy area the size of a football field.

Some 4,600 people are being housed here, 90 percent of them from the mountains around Chaping village, about 20 miles away, which remains cut off by road, said camp director Yang Jianxin.

"All these refugees have lost their homes -- their clothes and possessions are buried," he said. "We are doing what we can to help them."

As he spoke, the ground rumbled with the latest of what he said were hundreds of aftershocks felt in the past week. Refugees nearby gasped, and some ran from their tents in confusion, before calm settled after the 10-second tremor.

Jittery province

The entire quake zone is jittery. The Sichuan Seismological Bureau, one day after triggering a panic in the provincial capital of Chengdu by issuing a public warning of major aftershocks, said in a statement Tuesday the city was not a high risk area and was strong enough to withstand big tremors.

In the An Xian camp, more people are expected to show up in the next few days as more survivors make their way down from the mountains, Yang said. Some 500 people are either dead or missing from the Chaping area's main town, which still has about 1,800 survivors living in the mountains, he said.

Many of them, like Chen, made the 10-hour-plus hike down from the mountains with only the clothes they were wearing.

"We didn't sleep until we got here," Chen said. "I carried my father on my back part of the way, and then others helped me carry him down."

The camp has a clinic, food distribution points, toilets, a trash dump, and even plans for a temporary school. A red banner reads "Love is all around. We never feel lonely."

A giant, colorful pile of donated clothing lies in one corner, and dozens of women looking through it. Men in red vests regularly sweep and clean the area. Another area is a donation drop-off for a stream of well-wishers.

Among them was Tan Xuqiong, a 36-year-old teacher with a shiny black Prada bag slung over her shoulder, who came with her 18-year-old son to drop off boxes of water, food, and medicine.

"My hometown was only slightly affected. When I see these people living like this, I think it's so miserable. The contrast is shocking," said Tan, who is from Deyang city.

Each person in the camp receives regular daily rations: three bottles of water, a package of instant noodles, bread and some crackers. Families also received small radios and copies of the local Mianyang Daily newspaper.

Loudspeakers regularly blare announcements about hygiene and reminders to get daily health checks -- a precaution against possible disease outbreaks.

The clinic is staffed by eight physicians and six nurses -- all volunteers with China's Red Cross. Running from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., the medical staff sees about 1,000 patients a day, said Dr. Ye Mao, a 51-year-old orthopedic surgeon from Guangdong province.

"The biggest problem is the density of the camps. If an infection breaks out, it can spread very quickly," he said. No outbreaks have been reported.

After initially refusing foreign help, China is now allowing in medical and rescue teams. A Russian mobile hospital arrived Tuesday in the provincial capital of Chengdu, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, and other medical teams were headed in from Taiwan, Germany, Italy and Japan.

The disaster has raised some sensitive issues for the government about building standards, especially for schools, and about whether authorities did enough to reach survivors quickly.

Xinhua reported Tuesday that 129 students and 10 teachers who were trapped in the village of Xu Yong were flown out two days after local officials said all outlying villages had been reached.

Chen, the farmer, said refugees in his camp are getting what they need to survive, and they are grateful for the help despite the crowded conditions. His family shares a tent with 10 other people.

His 46-year-old wife Liu Yingchun was wistful: "I still feel bad because I can't forget all the things we lost. I used half my life to get all this and then suddenly I've lost everything. I don't know if I can ever get back what I had."


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