An American in Chengdu

Aftershock | October 22, 2009

“Did you feel the aftershock this morning?” Samantha asked a few days ago as we were sitting at our computers. I hadn’t. She said that she’d felt her bed shake at around 1:00 am, and had just been reading about the magnitude-4.9 aftershock that hit at that time.

This led to a conversation about the May 2008 Wenchuan earthquake (as people call it here). Samantha was teaching at the time, she said–it was 2:30 in the afternoon. When the earthquake started about half of the students ran out of the classroom, and she stayed with the other half, telling them that they were safe. She knew that the building, less than a year old at the time, had been built to withstand a magnitude-8.0 quake, so she wasn’t afraid. But, she said, if she’d known how big this quake was, she would have been afraid. The building swayed for three minutes.

Afterward the staff and students weren’t allowed to go back into the buildings for two days, until they could be inspected. It took Samantha two hours to find her husband, who works on the other side of campus, because phones weren’t working and because he had gone to find their 12-year-old daughter at school. She and the other teachers stayed on campus with with students for the two days until their dorms re-opened because the students weren’t allowed to leave. The teachers at her daughter’s school did the same.

Samantha said she doesn’t like to watch natural disaster movies anymore, which is interesting since by her own account, the disaster itself wasn’t so bad here. As far as I know, no buildings collapsed in Chengdu. But the immediate aftermath–a city of four million people made suddenly homeless, unable to reach their loved ones by phone to be assured of their safety–is something I can’t fathom. And I certainly can’t wrap my mind around the enormity death toll, which official figures put at more than 69,000. That’s more than twice the population of Ithaca, NY.

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    About me

    I've come to Sichuan in search of adventure, fluency in Chinese, and awesome vegetarian food. I have to concede that the baby pandas are very cute.
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