Catastrophic lessons in a quake zone

April 25, 2013

Ya’an, Sichuan province, China

By Jason Lee

It was 8:02 am on April 20th, 2013, three weeks before the fifth anniversary of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake which killed nearly 70,000 people, when another strong quake hit the city of Ya’an in the same province. More than 190 people died, 21 others are still missing, and more than 11,000 people have been injured.

I must admit when I first heard about the disaster, I was a little reluctant to cover it, hoping that this time it wouldn’t be very serious. The catastrophic images from five years ago were still lingering in my head. However, when the death toll started to climb, I quickly cleared my thoughts and got on the next flight to the quake zone.

I don’t want to use too many words to describe how much I overcame to get there because my difficulties mean nothing compared to every victim’s face I saw and every cry I heard on the way.

I want to write about something else that I witnessed there, something I believe is worse than the earthquake. This quake struck a mountainous area where most inhabitants are local farmers. I studied construction engineering in college and it didn’t take me long to notice that many houses in the area were constructed so poorly that they wouldn’t even be able to withstand a much smaller quake.

After taking some pictures of people crying in front of their destroyed houses, I stepped forward to interview them for the captions only to find out that many houses, even schools, were rebuilt after being damaged in the 2008 quake. I couldn’t believe how the lessons from what had happened had not been learned.

As the second biggest economy in the world, China still has many problems that need to be solved. Many rural areas still suffer from poor infrastructure and low social security.

Many people here question charity organizations after several scandals in recent years. The other day, I witnessed a small-scale protest against the inefficient rescue operation in Chaoyang village, near the quake’s epicenter. Due to an unbalanced arrangement of rescue resources, some people in the village didn’t have any shelter or food for more than two days. I saw an old couple kneeled down to beg for help during the protest. I felt so sad and useless as a photojournalist.

With this thought in mind, I started collecting names and bank accounts of some of the survivors I photographed.

As soon as I returned to Beijing, I posted the details of survivor Song Zhengqiong on my personal blog. I will never forget the pain and sorrow in her cries. Her house was completely destroyed by the quake, and she still owes the bank 40,000 yuan (6,482 USD) that she borrowed to build that very house. Luckily, within a day, more than 20 friends agreed to donate to help her.

But, I can only do so much. I wish them all the best and a quick recovery from their losses. I also hope that lessons are learned from their blood and tears.

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