A Month After Quake, Chinese Wait For Housing

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

ZUNDAO VILLAGE, China, (AP) -- The sun is low in the mountains as Wang Wenying fries up potatoes, beans and chunks of braised duck over an outdoor wood fire.

Behind her is the camouflage-patterned tent that she and five other family members have occupied since shortly after their once-bustling village was toppled May 12 by the worst earthquake to hit China in three decades.

"The living conditions are poor. It's hot in the tents, the lines are long for water. ... I don't know when things will improve. The sooner the better," said the 38-year-old Wang, a rotund pharmacist with a ready laugh despite the hardships.

One month after the magnitude-7.9 quake centered in Sichuan province killed more than 69,000 people and left 5 million homeless, tents - and for some, the lack of them - are defining life in the disaster zone.

The lucky ones have already moved into prefabricated homes being erected by the government. But most remain in hundreds of tent communities that have sprung up on fields, mountains and city sidewalks as refugees try to regain a semblance of normal life. Many are small and haphazardly planned. Others resemble miniature villages, with row after row of bright blue, government-issued emergency tents converted into homes, schools and shops.

Still, there are not enough of them. As of Tuesday, more than 1 million tents had been delivered to the earthquake zone, short of the 3 million the government says is needed. Relief workers had put up 68,000 temporary houses and were at work on another 23,400.

Some survivors complained that only those with connections to local officials got tents. Others said they simply did not know how to get them.

Wang Xiuyu, an unemployed widow with two young sons, lives under the eaves of the Jiuzhou Stadium in Mianyang city, where tens of thousands were taken right after the quake. Now, only a few thousand are left.

"We don't know where to go. We have no tent," said Wang as she sat on a thin mattress on the concrete floor. "We are still waiting for accommodations from the government. We have no idea how to get one and when we are going to leave the stadium."

The disaster was a milestone for China in many ways. Unprecedented 24-hour TV news coverage united the nation as journalists were allowed to report with rare freedom. Hundreds of thousands of troops, police and emergency personnel were mobilized in a frantic scramble to save lives. Volunteers from across the country swarmed into the region, and donations poured in, unusual gestures of charity in a country where most are still busy trying to climb into the middle class.

But as with any disaster of this size - from the tsunami that struck parts of Asia in 2004 to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 - restoring people's lives will take time. And it is already trying the patience of many.

With or without a tent, Sichuan's oppressive, muggy heat is the hardest part of living outdoors, said Wang Wenying, the woman cooking her dinner outdoors. She wore her hair pulled back in a bun, a white T-shirt, denim shorts and pink rubber flip-flops.

Wang's house in the village of Zundao, a solid two-story concrete building, remains standing but the walls are cracked. "I don't dare stay inside," she said. "Even as I'm standing here, I feel the ground shaking and my heart is beating fast."

Instead, she lives with her parents, her mother-in-law, her daughter and nephew in a tent with three beds, a sofa, a TV and computer, all taken from her home.

"Our lives have been set back by 20 years," Wang said as she stirred her dinner.

On Taohua mountain, six members of an extended family live in a tent crafted from wooden poles and sheets of canvas. They and about 3,000 other residents of Qinglian town were forced up the slopes to wait for waters of a "quake lake" - the biggest of 30 formed after earthquake rubble blocked rivers - to recede.

The heat means their clothes are constantly soaked in sweat. At night, the mosquitoes swarm. The public toilets are overflowing, so they use the nearby forest and bury their human waste to prevent disease.

"I'm scared all the time. First there was the earthquake, then there are aftershocks and now maybe a flood," said Suo Jingyong, a 34-year-old clothing vendor, who shares the tent with her parents, her husband, his father and the couple's year-old daughter. The preserved meat they salvaged from their home is beginning to go bad, and fresh vegetables are hard to come by.

"There's nothing we can do," said Suo who makes sure visitors have cushions to sit on and apologizes for the spartan conditions.

A colorful maze of tents has been set up on the peak, a temporary village filled with makeshift homes, a clinic and a tiny convenience store offering shampoo and soft drinks. A water truck comes up to three times a day, and the area is disinfected at least twice daily.

But residents have been told they will be moved later in the month to another part of the mountain so that officials can better manage the area.

For some in the camp, it will be fifth or sixth time setting up a home since May 12.

"We're not scared of the earthquake, we're not scared of floods but we fear being moved frantically," Yu Taichun, a doctor in Qinglian, said in a text message. "It makes our lives harder. ... We appeal to the officials and the experts to think about the ordinary people."

The town of Hanwang, where almost all the buildings collapsed or were partially destroyed, is almost deserted. A few residents have salvaged furniture from their ruined homes and are selling it to scrap buyers.

A group of tents sit in front of a factory at one end of town. It is hot, and garbage is strewn on the ground. Residents sit slumped under any shade they can find outside the tents. One woman slicing sausage for lunch starts crying when asked how she's doing.

While many in the disaster area expressed gratitude for the central government's swift response, anger has been brewing over what some say is lower-level corruption and hoarding of donations.

State media reported one instance in which a tent was pitched in a well-to-do neighborhood of the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu, where there was little damage from the quake.

In Mianzhu county, taxi driver Yang Pengwei said he and his pregnant wife were denied a tent at an emergency station and a government office before finally getting one more than three weeks after the quake. Until then, they lived in a homemade shelter that trapped heat when it was sunny and leaked when it rained.

"The biggest problem is the long queues for food and the shortage of tents," said the round-faced Yang, 23, who cheerfully recounted his problems. "We've now entered the time of reconstruction. What needs to be fixed will be fixed, what needs to be torn down will be torn down."


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