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Better prepared for earthquake disaster

By Diao Ying | China Daily | Updated: 2013-04-26 09:03

 Better prepared for earthquake disaster

Premier Li Keqiang consoles a young earthquake victim in a hospital in Chengdu on April 21. Huang Jingwen / Xinhua

Major improvement in emergency response and relief work credited for saving lives

China's new leadership was faced with the first major natural disaster since they took office a month ago after a major earthquake hit Sichuan province on April 20.

Compared with the Wenchuan earthquake five years ago, which caused nearly 70,000 deaths in the same province, the reaction and relief work at Ya'an city in Lushan county this time was speedier and more efficient, with better technology and emergency response system in place.

The 7.0-magnitude quake struck in the morning of April 20. It has killed about 200 people and injured more than 12,000 others. Rain and aftershocks triggered landslides that affected more than 2 million people.

The central government quickly mobilized large military and civilian forces for rescue and relief work. More than 19,000 military personnel were sent to the quake-hit areas within 72 hours.

Following lessons learned from the Wenchuan earthquake in May 2008, the government's response was much faster.

The Ya'an earthquake struck at 8 am, and the Sichuan provincial government held the first news conference four hours later, followed by frequent briefings. Five years ago, it took more than a day before the first briefing over the Wenchuan earthquake.

Technological advances also made relief work more effective. In 2008, it took two days for rescuers to get remote sensory images of the affected sites. In Ya'an, images of quake-hit areas were provided on the same day as the earthquake, the data then distributed to 12 ministries and the Sichuan government.

"The country has improved its emergency response mechanism since 2008," said Liao Xiaohan, director of the National Remote Sensing Center of China. "This time we reacted quickly and organized an information-sharing mechanism so all government departments could share remote-sensing data."

Following the onset of the earthquake in Wenchuan, there was no alarm system to give people time to escape. In Ya'an, the alarm sounded five seconds after the earthquake began. Many living near the epicenter in Ya'an were able to escape collapsing buildings and structures.

The development of online social networks and the wide use of smartphones also made it easier for people to communicate and share information.

Micro-blogging barely existed five years ago, but the first micro blog about the Ya'an quake was posted online 53 seconds after it was over.

Journalists released information about Ya'an in real time, sending their pictures and stories from the disaster zone. Local people also used social networks to release information and look for lost relatives and friends.

In the four days after the earthquake, more than 12,000 snippets of such information were sent through the Tencent micro blog, and 405 of them resulted in locating friends and family, according to the company.

In the aftermath of the Wenchuan earthquake, many questioned how rescue money and relief funds from donations were spent. This time, as people rushed to help, the Ministry of Civil Affairs asked charity groups to regulate donations and make the process more transparent by publishing information about their activities on their websites, which would later be scrutinized.

Lessons have also been learned about how to carry out relief work in a more scientific way. The earthquake was psychologically traumatic for many who escaped injury. Within 24 hours of the quake, professional psychiatrists had arrived at Lushan.

On April 24, 189 students returned to classes at the first school to reopen, and immediately received counseling. In Wenchuan in 2008, the first psychiatrist arrived 13 days after the quake.

The Ya'an earthquake was also seen as a test for the new leadership. They emphasized they would put the people first in their policies, and that has been reflected in the nature of the relief work in Lushan.

Shortly after the earthquake, President Xi Jinping ordered all possible measures to be taken to rescue victims and minimize death and injury. He made it clear that saving lives was the top priority. He also ordered troops to be quickly dispatched to the front line of relief work to rescue residents and treat the injured in every possible way.

Premier Li Keqiang flew to Ya'an from Beijing five hours after the earthquake.

"We should put saving people first because people's lives are more precious than anything else," he said at the site of the epicenter on April 21 morning. "We should use scientific means, including using life detectors, to rescue every person who might survive."

According to reports by the Xinhua New Agency, during his visit, Li urged local officials to check every house and make the utmost effort to save lives as long as there was a scintilla of hope.

When visiting the county hospital in Lushan, Li asked the patients injured in the quake about their feelings and the conditions of their family members, reassuring them that the Party and government will make the utmost effort to treat them.

On April 24, Li proposed a moment of silence to mourn the victims of the Lushan earthquake, and people who had lost their lives in disaster relief operations, at a meeting of the State Council. He also urged rescuers to continue their efforts, although the peak time for saving lives had passed. "We should not give up searching for trapped victims. We should check every spot," he said.

He said the central government will grant a subsidy to people without a home or income as a result of the quake.

"We should ensure that affected people have access to safe living places, food and clean water," he said. "We should also highlight health and disease prevention as an important task of relief work."

Local authorities have been urged to relocate affected residents and ensure access to a house, food and clean water. Tents, clothes, sheets and prefabricated homes, as well as food and funds allocated by the central government, should be distributed to the needy as soon as possible, and disinfection to prevent disease epidemics should be strengthened, a statement released by the State Council said.

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