Disasterology 7: Earthquake-scarred Sichuan village reimagined as tourist hub, memorial

October 11, 2013

For survivors of Superstorm Sandy in the U.S. Northeast, the Sendai tsunami in Japan and the massive earthquake in Chengdu, China, the scars of disaster are still palpable. I’m part of a group of journalists brought together by the East-West Center in Hawaii to see how the people and environments hit by these catastrophes are faring, one year,  two years and five years later. We began our tour on Sept. 29. Here are the other posts in the series:

Come to the village of Yingxiu and see the elaborate carved gateway, the food stalls, souvenir shops and credentialed performers dressed as a cheeky monkey and a cuddly panda. It is the quintessential tourist town, ringed by mountains and at the confluence of two rivers. You also can leave the main street to see this community’s past, when the clocks stopped at 2:28 p.m. on May 12, 2008.

That was when a monster earthquake heaved almost directly beneath Yingxiu, killing about 70,000 people in and around China’s Sichuan province. Of those, 6,566 died in this formerly bustling factory town, more than one-third of its pre-earthquake population. Eighty percent of the buildings were destroyed.

One poignant reminder of the tragedy remains: a memorial to the 54 students, teachers and parents who died when the local school collapsed on itself. Pilgrims bring yellow flowers to place below a giant clock face, with fissures to indicate the time of the quake more than five years ago.

The structures have been left where they fell, with some concrete buttresses in place to keep them from falling further. The boys’ dormitory was five stories tall, but now is only four because the second floor pancaked onto the first. The girls dormitory is barely identifiable as a building, its walls broken and piled in a heap, vegetation growing from the ruins. A formerly five-tiered lecture hall looks like a set of blocks flung by a toddler.

The new buildings in the main part of town have shops on the ground floor and living space on the floors above, and were constructed with new technology to make them more resilient to earthquakes, according to the town chief, Liu Zhihong.

When asked for his thoughts on coping with disaster, he offered these insights, speaking through a translator: “You have to face disasters strongly enough … You should continue your life with smiles … You need to be grateful to those who help you.”


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