China’s Sichuan Earthquake – Three Years Later
“It’s all new”, said the shirtless man who shared a small quadrant of shade with me behind our bus. He was pointing with his cigarette at a series of white three story buildings directly in front of us.
It was two o’clock in the afternoon and a sweltering sun beat down unmercifully upon our vulnerable position on the side of the road. This was the third time that our bus had broken down in just a few hours and I was starting to wonder if I would make it back to Chengdu that day.
“What was it like before?” I asked as I gazed a few hundred meters down the road at the outskirts of Wenchuan.
“It was different”, was the reply. “You should have seen it. Very different.”
In 2008, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake shook the city of Wenchuan into ruined pieces and ravaged over 3000 kilometers of the surrounding area. It is estimated that around 70,000 people perished although the true number will never be known. More than three years later, there are many signs, or ‘earthquake relics’ as they are called locally, that remain of this epic disaster; collapsed houses and bridges, massive landslides, and humongous boulders are still clearly visible throughout the area. Across the river at where the old 213 national highway used to be, I spotted some crushed vehicles that serve now as haunting memorials to that tragic day in May of 2008.
There are many other geological changes that have occurred as well although they were not immediately obvious to me since I had not traveled in the area before the earthquake. One dramatic event in the aftermath of the earthquake was the creation of 34 lakes due to debris buildup and the natural damming of rivers in the area.
The Chinese government can be accused of many things but inefficiency is not one of them. With billions of dollars pumped into the region, thousands of new buildings have been constructed and in some cases, entire towns have been rebuilt. Now, in August of 2011, it is estimated that reconstruction is nearly complete.
“The government paid for all of this,” my shirtless friend explained. The tire shop in front of us. The housing in the back. The snack shop next door. These attractive Tibetan style buildings were all compliments of Beijing.
The Chinese government has had some help, of course. Billions of dollars have also flowed into the region from other countries. And while it is true that corruption is still a serious problem in China, it is apparent that some of the money has been put to good use. As I traveled through the region, the mountains echoed with the sounds of machinery as new roads, tunnels, and bridges are being constructed to help ease the traffic load on the smaller replacement roads that were built in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Many have marveled at the speed of reconstruction but one has to wonder how much quality has been sacrificed in the process. After all, it was the shoddy workmanship of pre-earthquake buildings that caused so much death and destruction. The government has promised to adhere to stricter earthquake zone building standards but only another powerful rumble from below will tell us how well that promise has been kept.
“The people here lost their innocence as a result of the earthquake and they’re different now”, says my new friend as our bus engine finally roars to life. I take one last look at Wenchuan as I climb back into the bus. Since I didn’t know anyone from Wenchuan I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant but I can only imagine that the survivors of this tragedy have a new found respect for the powerful forces of nature and a great appreciation for each other and for the international community that came to their rescue.