Sichuan: Ordinary life in an extraordinary situation

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Talking to some of the students, many of which are preparing for the college entrance examination.
As I toured earthquake-devastated parts of Sichuan last week, what struck me most was the continuation of ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances. 

Beichuan middle school was the site of one of the great tragedies of the earthquake.  The old building of the school collapsed completely and the new building pancaked, crushing the lower level.  About half of the 2,000+ students and teachers died.  Beichuan county seat has been completely abandoned.  The middle school has temporarily been relocated some miles away, on the campus of a training ground for a big appliance manufacturer.   The facility had some good classrooms to begin with, and new temporary ones were added quickly.  The students are living in tents on the grounds.

The students we talked to were remarkably composed.  One high school senior explained that she had been on the second floor of the new building, which collapsed onto the first floor, allowing her to escape.  The boy next to her said he remembered nothing because he was knocked unconscious and then pulled from the rubble.  He had only recently been released from hospital. 

The tents the students live in.
The headmaster had been on the third floor of the new building and was able to escape.  They told us that school resumed in this temporary facility one week after the earthquake.  These seniors were preparing for the college entrance examination.  Students in the earthquake zone have been given an extra month to prepare, and will take the test in about one week.  Their lives for the moment revolve around cramming and all the nervous excitement that goes with a big test.

In Dujiangyan all the streets were lined with tents, and all the parks and riverside space as well.  Few buildings here had completely collapsed, but many were partially destroyed or structurally unsound with large cracks and crumbled masonry.  Hence the large number of people living in tents right in front of their apartment blocks.  As we toured the city, it was alive with mid-day eating and shopping.  A wedding procession wove colorfully down the street.  Aside from tents, some more durable temporary housing was going up quickly. A vendor sold TV antennaes here.

The most severely damaged area we visited was Leigu township just a few miles from Beichuan county seat, one of the hardest hit areas.  Leigu township is surrounded by dramatic mountains – now scarred with massive landslides.  The town itself is almost completely destroyed, but in the plain nearby a huge tent city has sprung up.  This tent city has a post office, China mobile center, health clinic, toilets – all put up almost overnight.  People had started to personalize their tent homes with plants and small patios.  A group of old people sat around playing mahjong.

Students in one of the temporary schools.
In the midst of unimaginable devastation, people were slowly rebuilding their lives. My colleagues Mara Warwick and John Scales have composed a photo essay from this visit. This and other material will be posted on an earthquake reconstruction webpage that we will launch in the next few days and will update as reconstruction proceeds.

Over this next few months the World Bank team will be helping with advice and probably funding on reconstruction.  Much of the focus will justifiably be on the infrastructure, but restoring people's livelihoods and lives is equally important, and we will try to report on this human dimension as we proceed. 



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