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Where there's smoke ...

By Hu Yongqi in Ya'an, Sichuan, and He Na and Jiang Xueqing in Beijing | China Daily | Updated: 2013-04-25 08:12

 Where there's smoke ...

Relief supplies arrive at Fujiaying village in Lushan county, Sichuan province. Photos by Feng Yongbin / China Daily


A tobacco pouch may have saved the lives of villagers, report Hu Yongqi in Ya'an, Sichuan, and He Na and Jiang Xueqing in Beijing.

Fujiaying village in Longmen township, just 5 km from Lushan county, the epicenter of Saturday's Ya'an earthquake, has been hailed as a sort of miracle. Not one of the 800 villagers was injured when the earthquake struck, despite massive damage to property in the area.

But rather than being overwhelmed by the destruction caused by the quake and waiting passively for help to arrive, the villagers began their own search and rescue mission hours before aid came from the outside world.

"China is a country with a long history of natural disasters, right through from ancient times to now," said Wang Dawu, the top political adviser of Lushan county.

"The example set by Fujiaying village can be used to benefit other regions and disaster relief work in the future," Wang said.

"More than 80 percent of those affected (in the county) have a strong awareness of the value of self-help. They tried their best to help each other survive, which gained them more time as they waited for supplies and help to arrive from outside," he said.

Li Xianhe is considered a savior in Fujiaying; the 68 year old and his family were the first to raise the alarm, allowing their fellow villagers to evacuate their crumbling houses and escape to safety.

But when the residents come to express their gratitude, Li simply smiles modestly and says they should be thanking his tobacco pouch, not him.

Li carries the pouch everywhere he goes, even securing it to his wrist by a piece of string when he lies down to sleep.

Just before the quake struck on Saturday, Li was woken by the violent rocking of the tobacco pouch hanging from his arm.

"It's really weird, you know? I experienced the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 and my instincts told me just one thing - earthquake. I yelled out 'earthquake, earthquake' and rushed my family out of the house immediately," he said.

Rather than trying to re-enter their house and collect valuables, Li and his family rushed along the village road and shouted to their neighbors, warning them of the impending disaster.

"Run! Quickly! Leave everything behind and run!" yelled Li in the hope his voice would alert those still indoors. As his cries rang out, many villagers ran from their homes and joined him in the road.

Fearing a large number of injuries in the village, Li and the other residents went from door to door, calling out and checking to see if anyone was trapped inside.

Li said he let out a long sigh of relief when every one of the more than 800 villagers was gathered unscathed outside.

"Thank goodness, we were all alive and fine," said Li, his voice still hoarse a few days after the disaster.

Li served as a village Party chief for three decades and helped villagers to organize the cleanup operation in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, so naturally the villagers all came to him for help.

First, he led a group to assess the damage to buildings. In the short gaps between aftershocks, they rescued a few basic goods, such as grain, water, pans, blankets and boards from the few houses they identified as still being stable. The villagers hastily erected several temporary shelters from sheeting and poles to provide a living space for the elderly and children.

When Mu Yonghong returned to Fujiaying from Neijiang city, Sichuan province, where he works two days after the quake, he feared the worst. However, he found his wife and two children sitting safely in one of the shelters.

"The villagers helped my kids out after the quake. Without them, I might not have seen my kids again," said the 40 year old.

Another resident, Zhang Guohe, 38, said: "Earthquakes are natural disasters, after all. We cannot all depend on aid from outside. I heard that some people have been killed in the neighboring villages. Not every one has been as lucky as us.

"I hope our village committee can play a more effective role in self help and maintain a sound relationship with the town government. Then, if other disasters or emergencies occur, the rescue workers and supplies might reach us earlier," he said.

Self-help measures

Taking measures to help oneself and others plays a critical role in disaster relief, according to Zhang Zhirong, director of the emergency response office of the People's Government of Guangyuan, a city in Sichuan province. "The disaster-stricken counties and towns are scattered across a wide area. They stand some distance from the government-led rescue teams. By the time these teams arrive at the scene, several hours or even a day might have already passed. If the villagers in Lushan county had not made efforts to help themselves and each other in the first few hours after the earthquake, many lives would have been lost," said Zhang.

Blocked roads, communications breakdowns and a number of other factors meant the rescue teams and supplies were unable to reach all the quake-hit areas as quickly as they would have liked.

Some places, especially those in remote mountain areas or far from the media spotlight, have to depend on themselves to get through the initial aftermath of disaster. The earthquake left a huge trail of destruction, but the number of villages and areas in which residents took survival into their own hands is testament to the value of preparedness.

For that, the Wenchuan earthquake can take some of the credit. The experience gained by those who survived the deadly quake reduced the loss of life and injury.

After Saturday's quake, reporters discovered that in village after village, residents had quickly formed task groups, each with an appointed leader, to begin the search for survivors and food, and to shore up damaged property.

'Communal life'

Four ovens made from mud stood like guards protecting the only road connecting Shangba village, in Lingguan town, Baoxing county, with the outside world. The earthquake claimed one life in Shangba and injured a dozen residents. Almost all the houses in this village of 1,400 people were destroyed.

Steam rose from four large black metal pans on the mud ovens as people stood in line, clutching different-sized containers. Chen Yuexia, 39, who had volunteered to cook, held a large ladle to serve porridge.

"The rice was rescued from the destroyed houses. We put all the food together. People have adhered strictly to the order of service: the elderly and children go first, then the women and men.

"It reminds me of the communal life I saw on TV in the 1950s, where people cooked, ate and worked together. I am confident that the hard times will pass soon, as long as we're united," Chen said.

Life in the greenhouse

The first batch of disaster relief supplies didn't arrive at Wangjia village in Longmen town until more than 30 hours after the quake. A military rescue team brought some rice, but no tents.

Villagers rescued a few items from the damaged houses and erected several makeshift shelters. But for the 3,700 residents, the arrangements only scratched the surface.

It rains a lot in Ya'an and Wangjia's village head, Yang Jinhua, was concerned about the lack of accommodation for the villagers who'd been forced out of their homes. Risking falling rocks and aftershocks, Yang rode his son's motorbike to the town government to ask for help. However, he was told that tents are in short supply across the region.

Yang was at his wit's end, when he remembered the nine greenhouses where he raises medicinal plants. To provide some cover from the weather, Yang decided to rip out the plants and move as many of the villagers inside as possible, despite his crop being almost ready for harvest. He estimates that he's lost around 90,000 yuan ($14,600), but is unrepentant. "I couldn't allow the elderly and children to sleep in the rain; people are more important than money," said the 59 year old.

Hu Guangrong, 48, runs a small store in the village. When it collapsed, the glass counters were smashed by falling bricks.

In the short space between aftershocks, Hu managed to collect some drinks, tomatoes and dried noodles, which he distributed to his fellow villagers, refusing payment. "It would have been better if I'd stocked a greater amount of food. Actually I thought I still had some eggs, but they were all smashed during the quake," he said.

Low level of awareness

Disaster relief work relies mainly on officials from the village government and members of the Communist Party of China, according to Zhang Zhirong.

The modus operandi is as follows: First, the officials search each household to see if anyone is injured. Then they lead the uninjured villagers to help the wounded, while also reporting to the higher level of government to seek more help. When professional rescue teams arrive, local officials brief them about the village and show them the way around.

In the wake of the 2008 quake, the Guangyuan municipal government ordered every village in the city to assign a communications officer who can report to the higher-level government - whether by phone or on foot - as soon as a natural disaster occurs.

The government has also held annual emergency response drills since 2008. The drills cover the city and the counties, towns and villages under its administration. Villagers are told about which routes they should take to escape danger during a variety of natural disasters, including earthquakes, mudslides and floods.

Lectures were held and brochures distributed to residents to improve their awareness of disaster prevention. For example, they were advised against building houses alongside watercourses, for fear of flooding, or in areas prone to landslides.

However, even though it had been five years since the large major earthquake in Sichuan, the ability of most Chinese to help themselves and each other in the event of a natural disaster still remains at a low level, said Lyu Zhonghong, director of the Luye Rescue Team, a non-governmental volunteer organization based in Beijing, whose team traveled to Ya'an directly after the quake.

"Many survivors rushed back into their houses to save family members right after the earthquake without wearing a helmet or any other protective gear. We heard about one couple that originally escaped but were killed later when their house collapsed as they tried to save their children who were buried inside. It's really sad," he said.

Although the Luye Rescue Team has provided seminars on emergency response and first aid to more than 100,000 people in Beijing and at 100 universities nationwide, the proportion of the population covered by training such as this is still far from adequate, especially at the community level, according to Lyu.

He suggested that every family should keep emergency response equipment and a first-aid kit at home. The kit should include items including protective gear such as helmets, emergency food supplies (biscuits, energy bars and bottled water), evacuation equipment such as ropes, a shovel and a hammer, as well as a whistle to attract attention and a radio to follow news of rescue attempts.

"Most people think that an earthquake will always strike someone else, not them," he said. "I haven't seen much change in terms of people's awareness of disaster prevention and self-protection during a natural disaster."  


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