Further disaster still a threat

After quake, floods, avalanches could hit, Chinese officials say

May 23, 2008|By Barbara Demick | Barbara Demick,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIJING - The danger is far from over in the mountainous terrain where last week's earthquake struck, with the risks of landslides, avalanches and flooding growing higher as the summer rainy season begins, Chinese officials said yesterday.

The warning came as the death toll from the May 12 quake rose to 51,151, with nearly 30,000 people still missing. More than 5 million are homeless and may not be able to rebuild their houses any time soon, or ever, because of the instability of the terrain.

"There will certainly be more landslides, new avalanches and mudflows," warned Yun Xiaosun, deputy land and resources minister, in a news conference. "We are still having aftershocks, and then next month is the start of the rainy season." The grim assessment was based on high-resolution satellite photos provided by the U.S. government this week that show the potential for what are called "secondary geological disasters." Quakes leave the ground fragile and susceptible to landslides. The biggest danger comes from "barrier lakes," which are formed when a landslide plugs up a river and could easily overflow after a heavy rain or afterfurther shocks.

Chinese geologists who examined the photos detected 34 such lakes. One particularly large one near the town of Beichuan has already forced the evacuation of thousands of people living in the potential path.

"These lakes pose a very severe risk," said Liu Yuan, an environmental official with the Land and Resources Ministry.

The area also has many dams, reservoirs and hydroelectric power plants that have been damaged.

The magnitude-8.0 quake rearranged Sichuan province's already complicated landscape of rushing rivers, flood-prone valleys and jagged mountains.

Even re-creating roads is a dangerous mission. More than 200 government employees, most of them with the Transportation Ministry, were entombed in mud by landslides over the weekend when they tried to clear the rubble from a road near the epicenter in Wenchuan.

"The devastating phenomenon we see today is a natural consequence of the earthquake. Today's landslide will be the beautiful valley of tomorrow. Mountains are created this way. It is only unfortunate that this is a place where people live," said Guo Huodong, a geologist with the Chinese Academy of Science.

Guo, whose department reviewed the satellite images, said many areas will be left uninhabitable. The town of Beichuan, where many of the 13,000 residents were killed, is squeezed between a river and mountain.

"Maybe they can build a memorial there to victims of the earthquake," he said. "But as far as living there, it is not a wise idea."

Housing the homeless is the next priority. The Chinese government appealed to the international community yesterday for 3.3 million tents, saying only 400,000 had reached the disaster area. Officials said Chinese factories are working around the clock to produce more tents but cannot meet the demand.

The Chinese government has also set a goal of building 1 million temporary houses by August.

In addition to those left homeless by the quake, many people whose homes are intact have fled or are sleeping outside for fear of the continuing aftershocks.

Barbara Demick writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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