Robert Siegel

Sichuan Seismic Scare

There's a run on tents here and an improvised tent city has sprung up around the Chengdu sports arena. We're not talking about homeless evacuees from the disaster area, although there are some who have joined their families in the city. These are mostly middle class residents of the city, whose homes are standing but who are sleeping outside, or planning for that eventuality, in part because of a warning from provincial seismological authorities.

Chengdu camping

Urban camping is in vogue throughout Chengdu as the result of a prediction that forecast a new quake Tuesday. Photo by Brendan Banaszak, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Photo by Brendan Banaszak, NPR

Last night, the Chinese news agency, Xinhua, reported that Sichuan seismologists say there's a strong likelihood of a powerful aftershock, magnitude six to seven in the same area as last week's quake. Now, we don't know what science they were employing to come up with that prediction (and there have been similar forecasts of imminent, big aftershocks all week) but this news item, broadcast last night, predicting a quake 1% to 10% as powerful as the original one, set off a run on tents at the local sporting goods stores.

At the first store we went to, a woman was setting a tent she had just bought for 400 yuan (about $60). She had lined up early. Another hundred eager customers, most of them young people, were still waiting.

Money to Spend

Chengdu camping

Top: Women hang the ever-present striped plastic tarp at an ad hoc city camping site. Scenes such as this below campers were using the sprinting practice lanes as overnight refuge. Top photo by Brendan Banszak, bottom by Robert Siegel, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Top photo by Brendan Banszak, bottom by Robert Siegel, NPR

At another store ("Old Soldier") people were paying 650 yuan, almost a hundred dollars for slightly larger tents. At these prices, the clientele was decidedly middle class. Lucy, a factory rep with six year old daughter, Flower, had just bought three of them for her extended family. She trusts her government, she said. And when I noted the price, she pointed out cheerfully that nowadays the Chinese have more money to spend.

The people I asked, seemed to manage several conflicting ideas about their safety simultaneously: their own homes will be OK; the government is warning of aftershocks; the government knows what it's doing; even if there's no imminent danger, better safe than sorry, especially if there's any potential danger to the kids..

Peace of Mind, Not Panic

Mr. Su, a businessman who works in a joint venture was camped out with his family on a prime spot of tent city real estate on the grounds of the Chengdu sports stadium: between lanes one and two of a practice sprint track. He sat on a folding chair, surrounced by his six year old daughter, her cousins and classmates under a tree that is wrapped in spectacular vines that had grown off the trellis next to him. This is not a scene of panic, but rather of the peace of mind that prosperity can purchase in a time of seriously jangled nerves.

Under one tent after another, whether they were upscale models or tarps of striped plastic stretched over poles, people played cards, and communicated non-stop on their cell phones. For the little kids (school is out once again) it looks like fun, and if this morning's faint drizzle doesn't erupt into too much of a downpour, the holiday atmosphere could endure.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Yesterday at a news conference Chengdu officials dismissed the earthquake "prediction" as nonsense.)



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

I know it sounds weird, but there is that sort of sense of fun and adventure when, say, the power goes out in the neighborhood for a day or when the city is snowed in with a blizzard. It's fun for a while. Also, I'm a scientist by training, but if I heard the media predicting aftershocks, my emotions would take over, I'm sure, and I'd be out of my high-rise apartment, too. I'm grateful for the first-person, incomparable coverage by NPR's Robert Siegal and Melissa Block.

Sent by Patty Boyd | 8:09 AM | 5-20-2008

NPR, you will probably not post this because I feel the reporting in Sichuan this week has been particularly appalling.

Earlier on, with practically Amageddon all around them, your reporters were more focused on how sensitive the Chinese Government was about foreign journalists than the actual story itself.

And today, I heard a patronizing Melissa Block interviewing a frightened villager who have taken refuge in Chengdu from possible aftershocks asking:

MB: Why are you here?
Villager: To avoid the earthquake.
MB: What earthquake?

What was she possibly expecting from this line of questioning? Would a frighten victim just forget what had happened last Monday, and ignore all warnings of further aftershocks?

Sent by E. Sullivan | 8:25 AM | 5-20-2008

How should we balance it when it comes to earthquake prediction?

There was no warning May 12, and but I have read and heard many many about just such a warning out there by who, where and when. So many details have been given as if they had pinpointed the May 12 earthquake. The government of course takes the blame for not warning ahead.

Now the government issued a warning according to the information given by the scientists, who are staring at the monitoring equipments every second. And what we say now? No, you can not predict a earthquake.

By the way, a few hours after this warning was issued, a 5.0 aftershock has indeed occurred.

In the wake of such devastation, I take better-safe-than-sorry approach.

Sent by cz | 9:44 AM | 5-20-2008

When the great Tangshan earthquake occurred in 1976, I was a teenage living in southern China. That was about two thousand miles away from the epicenter and nobody felt the earthquake. I do not believe there was any scientific evidence that we were in any danger. Yet this was what happened:

It was decided by the Chinese government that it was not safe for us to live inside the stone houses. So, all of the town people built temporary houses with wood sticks, muds, and hays. And I ended up spending my first year of junior high in those makeshift mud classrooms. Well, I look back at this period with nothing but fond memories: That was one of the most wonderful experiences in my life. Those are the kind of experiences that my America-born children would never have.

Robert, Melissa, and the NPR gangs, welcome to the "standard" (as in "you English is standard") China, and thanks for the wonderful job. Stay safe and take care!

Sent by Mike | 10:21 AM | 5-20-2008
Pandas International desparately needs our help. They have a May 16 update near the bottom of their website with a map of the quake zone. Wolong Panda Reserve is near the epicenter and PI is sending medical supplies for humans and pandas. In short the update (4 days old) says the following...

"The remaining medicine and supplies from both the human and veterinary clinics won't last past two days at the most. Pandas International has become Wolong's Red Cross. It's not just about pandas anymore. It's about rescuing the people, who have spent their days and years saving an endangered species for us and our world."

The Red Cross is swamped and the Wolong staff is doing their part to help. Thank you.

Sent by Nancy S. | 11:19 AM | 5-20-2008

Melissa and Bob, Thank you for the wonderful report from Chengdu. Yesterday I listened to your report on the radio just on my way home after work. I heard your correspondent in Beijing commenting about the role of central government in this quake. So many images of Wen, Jiabao's presence quickly after the quake came up to my mind. He was almost non-stopping all over the hard-hit area. I could feel his kindness and care of people deeply. Then I was thinking where Bush was the first few hours after the Katrina hit New Orlean......

Sent by Rey Hsu | 1:49 PM | 5-20-2008

I may have missed this part but how much freedom of movement and access to the people do NPR reporters have? Are reports reviewed by the government prior to release? Just wondering how much things have changed.

Sent by Martin Echols | 6:22 PM | 5-20-2008

With what material do you rebuild after such a disaster in an area that will experience future earthquakes? This is the base of the Himalaya mountains, where mountain building is proceeding; the plates will continue to collide and subduct. The forests have been recovering from the resource-extraction causing loss of forest cover throughout the late 20th century, though I wonder to what degree the young age of many forests might have affected the landslides.

I expect that many folks will hesitate to find apartments in large concrete structures. Certainly deforestation to extract wood for housing would cause flooding, likely it would also make the slopes more prone to slides. I doubt that the residents of western Sichuan will accept the high-density housing that was the urban standard of the past few decades. Now there is rebuilding to be done, but what materials are appropriate? I hope the outcome is sustainable building practices integrated with earthquake-safe construction, but these people need homes immediately.

Sent by Jon D. Moulton | 6:54 PM | 5-20-2008

Nancy S.

Pandas in the research center are safe, some of them have been moved to Chengdu. But 5 staff members for the research center were dead.

Sent by ipfreak | 7:12 PM | 5-20-2008

To Martin Echols:

Where have you been? There might have been restrictions on where foreign reporter can go. But what was the last time a foreign reporter needed to get approval from the Chinese government before releasing a news report?

Sent by Yong Gao | 8:24 PM | 5-20-2008

For the record, a 5.2 aftershock indeed occurred in Pingwu county Sichuan at 01:52AM May 20.

Sent by Yong Gao | 8:35 PM | 5-20-2008

News from China forest bureau on Wolong panda research center.

5 people dead, 3 big pandas escaped, rest of pandas safe. Severe damage to buildings. All baby pandas were carried by people during evacuation, but big pandas are too heavy.

Sent by Tom | 8:54 PM | 5-20-2008

I'm very upset by the reporting by both Melissa Block and Robert Siegel. They need to stop patronizing the people in tents and focus on the thousand other stories they could be covering. I can't believe the mocking tone that they both have in their questions...."What earthquake?" "How is the state of your house?" (Making some women who had just bought a tent feel quite silly, I'm sure.)

The public understands Robert and Melissa's (valueless) point of how some people might be over-reacting to the after-shock prediction, but is that really newsworthy? I think that some very western-centric prejudices are surfacing in this reporting.

Perhaps a few profiles of heroes, some community-building stories, and an in-depth look at the impact of losing children in a one-child state might serve us better.

Sent by James | 9:20 PM | 5-20-2008

James, Sullivan, et al: I think you guys are too critical of Robert and Melissa's reports. They have been doing a wonderful job, in my view. Nonetheless, the lines of their questions in these two latest reports do exemplify the differences between the Chinese and western cultures, especially when facing disasters. In short, the Chinese are more on the emotional and intuitive sides whereas the westerners are more on logical and abstraction sides. The campers and camp buyers were overcome by their emotional and intuitive thinking.

I believe the earthquake prediction was based on abnormal animal and well water patterns. Although there is no scientific proof that such natural phenomenon can be used to accurately predict earthquake, they can be used as collateral evidences. So, the prediction was not entirely "nonsense." After all, China used such evidences and intuitions to accurately predict the Haisheng earthquake in 1975, which resulted in saving thousands of lives. This remains the only accurately predicted major earthquake in human history.

Sent by Mike | 11:59 PM | 5-20-2008

I am from Sichuan China but I live in Florida.My parents and brother and sister are camping and sleeping outside in Chengdu since last Monday. They have all my heart these days.

I just want to thank Melissa and Robert for your report from Sichuan. When I hear the Sichuan accent Chinese from those Chengdu people in your report, I felt I was brought back to Sichuan.

I wish you enjoy your stay in Sichuan, Melissa and Robert! Thanks so much!

Sent by Bing Xju | 12:01 AM | 5-21-2008

For those who are reading blogs for the first time, let me explain one thing... blogs are NOT necessarily journalistic and do not always conform to your typical reporting protocol. Thus ALWAYS take what you read in a blog with a grain of salt, especially when talking about a dynamic situation like a natural disaster. So James, this really isn't NEWS as we are used to, rather more of a diary of events being written by these journalists, who themselves are probably facing pressures neither of us can imagine. Give them a bit of slack, valueless to you doesn't mean it's value-less to all the readers.

Sent by Ed aka yu888 | 3:28 AM | 5-21-2008

"I'm very upset by the reporting by both Melissa Block and Robert Siegel. They need to stop patronizing the people in tents and focus on the thousand other stories they could be covering. I can't believe the mocking tone that they both have in their questions...."

I agree with the above comments. I think they should stop living in the best hotel in Chengdu, where they are not worried about being affected by the earthquake at all, and flee back to the US.

Sent by W. S. | 8:46 AM | 5-21-2008

The npr maybe is the most impartial media in USA. But still sort of partial because of it can not change so quick, but I believe that as long as they stay in China, they will know what's the China and Chinese people exactly!

Sent by Dallas | 9:32 AM | 5-21-2008

To all who wants a more balanced news (and understand Chinese):

I hope NPR will post this comment.

I am a SiChuanese living in San Diego. I've been here for 11 years. Even though my family members and friends are fine, I am still greatly saddened by the devastating event.

I have been following news about the earthquake since the original quake struck. I think that NPR is as balanced as Western media can be (kudos to ATC team). However, residing in the world's most powerful and richest country does make it difficult to relate to the harsh conditions poor people around the world (e.g. Chinese) live in. Hence insensitive comments like "Where are the trailers?" or "What earthquake?" etc.

That said, Chinese state run media has also been running overwhelmingly one-sided stories in favor of the government. Which brings me to my recommendation: Taiwanese media (iFeng). They are so far the most balanced news reporting I've heard in a week. Unlike their Western counterparts, they understand the difficult conditions in China and can communicate better with Chinese (duh, they speak Chinese) and unlike their Mainland Chinese counterpart, they are privately owned, and hence not aligned with a particular political faction. However, I am not endorsing Taiwanese media on other reporting, they do make mistakes, and most likely have some kind of political association similar to some U.S. news agencies (e.g. Fox, CNN etc). But in terms of earthquake coverage so far, they have done a great job!

Sent by OrangePanda | 12:19 PM | 5-21-2008

"Chinese citizens from across the country have been organizing food convoys, setting up blood drives and raising money for the victims of the earthquake that hit last Monday. While this sort of reaction may not be unusual in the West, this disaster is teaching the Chinese to rely on each other in ways they never have before." by Anthony Khun.

These sort of comments also shows how little you know about China and the Chinese people. Do you think the Chinese people have never donate funds, blood, and mostly give their love to their countrymen before? And this is the first time they have learned to do it? How ridiculous! Too bad I can't find your report on the May 19th Beijing concert, because I have something to say to you about that as well. You brain-washed Americans can never understand the Chinese people!

Sent by XW | 12:33 PM | 5-21-2008

All foreign reporters should be able to speak that country's language as well as that country's culture, in this case, a Chinese American would be a better choice. But we know this is the winner takes all country...

Sent by Ying Brach | 4:57 PM | 5-21-2008

As a resident of Chengdu I have been reading NPR's coverage with interest whenever I can get internet access, which has been patchy over the past week as I'm sure you can imagine. I have particularly high praise for Louisa Lim's post describing her night sleeping out with the people of Chengdu. She really succeeded in escaping from the perspective of an outside observer. By sharing the anxiety and the experience of sleeping outside, she conveyed the reality of the situation, not to mention the warmth and generosity of the Sichuan people. My family and I camped out most of last week rather than return to our 6th floor apartment. We returned home on Saturday, only to be shaken out of our beds by a 5.7 aftershock early Sunday morning. But none of that was as stressful as the experience of frantic phone-calls on Monday night urging us to leave home, and the stress of trying to figure out whether the danger was real or not. We also took a 'better safe than sorry' approach - who wouldn't when they have their young children to think about - and camped out for 2 more nights. Last night we stayed home, but I was woken several times by aftershocks and anxiety. We feel lucky to have escaped so lightly, considering the extent of the devastation and loss so close at hand, but that doesn't diminish the stress that people here in Chengdu are living with. So keep that in mind as you read stories of unscientific predictions and panicky reactions, and read Louisa Lim's post for a real sense of the atmosphere.

Sent by Catherine Platt | 10:20 PM | 5-21-2008

Depending on how close to the epicenter we were, or how close we were to people who lost their lives or loved ones, all of us in Sichuan province and beyond are in a heightened state of emotional attention. With over 7000 aftershocks in a week, the ground has not been solid and we feel it in our bodies. We feel grief and loss in our bodies; we feel disbelief in our bodies; our bodies remember and continue to feel the ongoing disequilibrium that comes when our world is shaken.

To different degrees, we have been shaken and are still shaking. Call it rational or emotional, we each respond in our own ways. In the US if a man or a woman puts on a white coat and says "I am a doctor, or I am a scientist," we trust them and believe what they say, even if they say " I am not a real doctor, I just play one on TV."

After the earthquake, I kept waiting to hear from the scientists - I even wrote to a Physicist in Greece who has done research on earthquake prediction - to reassure me that Chengdu was safe. Instead there were reports that the aftershocks would continue and might get stronger. I waited for word from the scientists; I looked online, I researched inconclusively.

In China, its citizens do not wait to hear from doctors or scientists, they wait for the voice of a government they may or may not trust to the same degree westerners trust or do not trust our doctors or scientists. Neither is a more or less rational approach, both are simply natural reactions to events that shake our world. We all look to some more rational authority to guide us through a maze of uncertainty. The cultural difference does not lie in our primal need for answers. I believe it is more superficial than that. We all look for authoritative guidance, but in different cultures we look to different people wearing different uniforms to lead us. This seems like a perfectly rational reaction to me.

Perhaps in China if there had been more direct word from seismologists about the science of aftershocks, there would have been less irrational panic about what could happen. Perhaps in the US, if there had been more government word about the condition of the Levees in New Orleans there would have been more rational panic about the impending crisis.

Sent by Anne Zuckerman | 12:58 AM | 5-22-2008

"That said, Chinese state run media has also been running overwhelmingly one-sided stories in favor of the government. Which brings me to my recommendation: Taiwanese media (iFeng)."

OrangePanda, are you talking about the Phoenix TV? It is a Hong Kong media with very strong pro-Beijing leaning.

Sent by margolotta | 6:02 AM | 5-22-2008

China's mainland seems to have over 3500 tent manufactures, more than any country in the world. How best can we,(the outside world), send support to the homeless earthquake victims and discourage the profiteering of humanitary aid?

Sent by Robert Shelton | 7:52 PM | 5-22-2008

I live in Chengdu now and I must say that I have enjoyed the blogs by the staff. Thanks. Being here for the earthquake was not at all fun, but seeing all of the after effects are even less fun. I am saddened by the loss and the destruction but at the same time, I am annoyed by the continued hysteria and hype that has only been encouraged by the government's constant "warnings". I look out into the complex in which I live and see tents pitched. I look out the window and see people carrying around their bedding and bags with all of their belongings. I understand the fear but at some point you really need to move on with life. It also doesn't help that the Chinese government sends out 'warnings' constantly about when an aftershock will happen or of floods that may or may not happen. Everything about me and my American upbringing tells me that there is no way to predict an earthquake but in a country where the people are so accustomed to accept blindly anything the government tells them, any warning sends people to the streets and jumping in their cars. And all this really bothers me more because I continue to stay in my apartment with my kids fighting the urge to panic and buy into the hysteria.

Sent by P. C. | 11:08 AM | 5-23-2008

I understand why people in Chengdu fear, because I am scared actually, scared of aftershocks, how big they will be. But I am really annoyed by the people around. They are in panic and do not trust the science but believe in rumors. We were not told about earthquake before this happened, but we need to know more about what is earthquake, how it happens and so on. If all of us know the truth, I dont think there is any reason to be nervous and going to be crazy.

Sent by Freya | 9:41 PM | 5-23-2008

To Martin Echols,
You sound very self-rightous, like a typical ignorant westerner who doesn't understand China and the people of China. I wish you would have a chance to visit China to expand your horizon a tiny wee if you would allow it. Trust me, when you visit that country, you won't be greeted by donkeys or mules, and oh ya...the hotel you will be staying in will have at least one TV for you to have free access to watch any news, and to switch to any channel you want to watch even CNN and BBC(I suppose those are your fav. channels). Oh, did I forget to mention that you have the freedom to spend more if you want to stay at A 5-STAR 5-DIAMOND hotel. My point here is, you can always find negative impressions about a country even the country you are currently living in if you only focus on the negative things and the worst of it all is when you don't see things for yourself but relying your source solely from the media.

Sent by A friend | 1:07 PM | 5-24-2008


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