Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Quake: Toads in the know

Horrific scenes of small dust-covered dead children lying amid the ruins of a collapsed school building, their grey skin contrasting so clearly with that of the living and breathing rescuers unearthing their corpses in the same picture. Latest estimate is 12,000 dead and counting. It's a huge number and it comes on top of 32,000 dead and 29,000 missing after the cyclone in Burma. It;s China's worst quake since the 1976 quake in Tangshan in which an astonishing 240,000 people died. Almost quarter of a million people!

The China Daily says seismologists predicted that Sichuan was due a big shock of 7+ on the Richter Scale sometime after 2003 because the average interval between big quakes in the region was 16 years, yet the last big quake to hit the region was in 1976 (not the Tangshan quake).

Seismologists weren;t the only ones: the picture from today's China Daily (above) shows hordes of toads spilling out on to a busy street - and being massacred by the traffic. Local authorities put the unusual reptile activity down to a change in the weather. A pool also mysteriously emptied in the region.

The idea that animals can predict earthquakes is fascinating:

"One theory is that wild and domestic creatures feel the Earth vibrate before humans. Other ideas suggest they detect electrical changes in the air or gas released from the Earth."

Animals also behaved oddly just before the 2004 tsunami.

Its not yet known if Sichuan's panda bears saw the quake coming. Sichuan is home not only to 84 million people (more than Germany, Europe's most populous country) but also to the biggest panda centres in the world. At 21.30 China time, about 2 hours ago, China's Xinhua news agency confirmed that all 86 pandas at the Wolong Centre in Sichuan are safe.

I personally didn;t feel a thing. At 14.28 I was on my bike cycling to a friend;s house for a haircut, which may be why. Some office blocks were evacuated in Beijing's business district. You don't want to find yourself on the 51st floor when the earth starts to shake. When I arrived blissfully ignorant at my destination, my friend had already been asked by friends and relatives in Russia and Beijing if she was ok.

News of and reaction to the quake from both Sichuan and around the world surfaced rapidly on Twitter via Summize, which allows you to track all Tweets containing certain keywords.
Everyone has a phone... There's some buzz now about how Twitter was first to break news of the quake here as well as:

"It is fantastic that so many threads can be interwoven from all over the world in such a short space of time but a service like Twitter is a tactic and not the target. It is a means of distribution rather than a destination and, as such, may never take over from traditional ‘reporting’."

"There’s no doubt that it was useful, but by no means did this episode drive a nail in the coffin of traditional media, which by my lights has been exceptionally good in its reporting — Xinhua, Phoenix, CCTV, and many other Chinese news organizations have really taken full advantage of the candor Beijing seems to be allowing and encouraging."

This new found openness is not something I can comment on, having only been in the country for a couple of months. The Telegraph article says:

"It was a contrast to the events in Tangshan 32 years ago, when the Chinese government refused for months to admit the 7.8 magnitude earthquake had even happened, despite the deaths of an estimated 240,000 people."

Contrast that with this remarkable account from a CNN journalist who describes how, with the country and people devastated by the cyclone, a natural disaster, the military junta there put effort and resources into tracking him down and booting him out. Scary stuff.

The China Daily's front page is printed in black with the headline: THE DAY THE EARTH MOVED. I'm not sure how I feel about that headline, even leaving aside the most obvious - to native English speakers at least - sexual association (which I have to say I find not a little clumsy). It's a bit wide-eyed, almost implying that it's the first time an earthquake has ever been experienced. Inside, I thought the coverage was good. It will be interesting to see tomorrow if the China Daily picks up on any of the grief-fuelled rage at alleged cowboy construction and corner-cutting on safety features in buildings that collapsed in these Guardian interviews.

So - death toll now past 12,000 and still rising, with 9,400 still buried in rubble. My thoughts are with them.


Update - my and presumably all Blogger blogs are blocked again in China. It's time to move platform - will happen asap.

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