5/12/2008 China Earthquake

Updated 1/3/09

A 7.8 Magnitude earthquake hit Eastern Sichuan province in China at 06:28 GMT on May 12, 2008. 2:28 PM local time. The epicenter was 960 Miles SW of Bejing, 50 miles West of Chengdu, a city of 4 million. The nearest city is Dujiangyan, with 600,000 population, which is about 45 miles from the epicenter. Dujiangyan suffered major damage and at first is the center of the rescue efforts. 88,000 people died in the quake, including as many as 10,000 children killed when their schools collapsed. More than 5 million buildings are estimated to have collapsed.

Rescue teams had difficulty just reaching the epicenter in Wenchuan county. Landslides blocked the roads past Dujaingyan making access difficult. Fortunately the road from Dujiangyan to Chengdu was kept open for rescue vehicles. The quake was felt over a very wide area of China, as far away as Bejing.

During the first few days after the quake there were frequent aftershocks, including at least 6 over 5.5 Magnitude, strong enough to cause additional damage. Residents were afraid to go back inside, but the heavy rain made it difficult to stay outside. Government issued tents and tarps are helping a bit but many people spent days outside in the wet and cold. There are fears of illness developing from these conditions, especially among the old and young. Schools and hospitals were among the buildings destroyed, making it difficult to administer medical aid to survivors. Some schools collapsed while classes were in session, trapping students. The army has taken charge of the rescue efforts, with over 50,000 troops being deployed to the region. Heavy earthmoving equipment is being brought into the area and rescue teams are going to work in as organized a fashion as possible, Given the chaotic conditions. Traffic into the worst hit area is restricted to rescue efforts. Many residents have left the area and gone to Chengdu for shelter and services.

Another concern has been damage to dams. Soldiers were set to work trying to mend cracks to shore them up. 34 new lakes have also been formed as the result of landslides blocking rivers. These new lakes are even more unstable and there was some concern over the possibility that a dam could break in the continuing heavy rains, adding floods to the disaster. Luckily this did not happen.

The Chinese government has pledged $10 billion for earthquake relief. International aid is also flowing into the area. However the government warns that more is needed, especially tents, blankets, clothes, food and medical supplies. They estimate that 3.3 million tents are needed. 10 days after the quake 400,000 tents arrived in the region. 7 months later many are still living in temporary housing provided by the government. A group of parents are suing over alleged shoddy construction practices that they say contributed to the collapse of so many schools. This suit is the subject of a film, "Who Killed Our Children?" by Pan Jianlin, which was shown at the Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea. The government offered compensation to parents who agreed to drop their demands for an investigation of school construction.

The quake is caused, in the broad scheme of things by the collision, on a continental scale, of India and Asia. India was a separate land mass that has during the last few million years, moved across the Indian Ocean and is currently slamming into southern Asia. The energy from that collision raised the Himalayas and radiates out from there, causing often destructive earthquakes. In 1933 an earthquake in the same general area killed 9300 people.

(See the Plate Tectonics page for more information on these processes.) The US Geological Survey (USGS) is an invaluable resource in understanding and tracking earthquakes.

US Geological Survey page on this earthquake

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