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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.

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

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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

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

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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.)