Earthquake In Western China Kills Hundreds

A strong earthquake struck a far western Tibetan area of China Wednesday. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands injured. Officials say many structures collapsed trapping victims. Rescue efforts are hampered by damaged roads and lack of power.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here are some of the numbers we give you after every earthquake, numbers that really don't begin to give you an idea of the tragedy until you learn the details. The earthquake in western China, today, measured a magnitude 6.9 that's according to the U.S. Geological Survey. At least 400 people have been killed, at least, and thousands more are injured. Rescue efforts are being hampered by damaged roads and a lack of power.

NPR's Louisa Lim is following this story from Shanghai. She's on the line. Hi, Louisa.

LOUISA LIM: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And I've been looking at your Twitter feed at LimLouisa. You've sent us some images from the region of earthquake damage. It looks pretty devastating, at least in some places.

LIM: It certainly sounds very devastating. What we're hearing the latest official figures are that 400 people are dead, 10,000 people estimated to be injured, so far, in the quake. And you have to bear in mind ,this happened in quite a sparsely populated area, a place called Yushu County in Shanghai province. It's also called Jakundo(ph) by Tibetans.

It has a population of around 100,000, so one in 10 could be injured, although people who I've been talking to say that estimate could actually be conservative. The quake itself was followed by a series of aftershocks. And we've been hearing that 85 percent of the buildings collapsed in Yushu Town. And we've also been hearing that a wall of a reservoir near the town has cracked and workers are racing to let out water to try to release the pressure on the dam wall to stop an even bigger disaster from occurring.

INSKEEP: This is bringing back memories of the earthquake of a couple of years ago in which there were terrible collapses. Schools collapsed killing many children at the time. Any indication that big public buildings have collapsed here?

LIM: Well, it's still very early and communications have been quite bad, so we're still trying to put together a picture of what's happening there. But it does appear that quite a few public buildings have collapsed, including schools. The boss of the local Red Cross said 70 percent of the schools there have collapsed. We know a primary school there collapsed with some deaths. We've also heard that a four-story teachers college collapsed with 30 to 40 students inside. And part of a vocational school also caved in.

So, it seems the scene is very grim. We're hearing that although rescuers are trying to save them, there's a shortage of excavators. So, people are digging through the rubble with their hands to try to save people. It's not yet clear whether the schools, the collapse of schools, will be a national issue like it was last time, given the fact that so many other buildings collapsed here in this particular quake.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Louisa Lim about today's earthquake in China. It happened in western China, which is a region, I understand, Louisa, that you traveled in not so long ago. What's it like?

LIM: Well, I was in that part of the world last year, and it is very remote. It's difficult to get to. The place where this quake has happened is 12 hours, over land, from the provincial capital of Xining. It's very high up - about 12,000 feet - and very poor. Most people there are subsistence farmers. The houses are wood, earthen walls, and so, of course, they collapse very easily.

People there are really living a subsistence existence. Life is very tough even at the best of times. And it, of course, will be much tougher still given today's earthquake. It's freezing up there right now. We're hearing that snow is falling. There's strong wind and sleet forecast in the days to come. And of course, these people are all homeless. So, it'll be a huge task keeping them warm and making shelter for all these people in the days to come.

INSKEEP: And I suppose any aid is going to have to go over those 12 hours of mountain roads that you saw.

LIM: That's right, and we're hearing those roads have been damaged by the quake. We know that there were soldiers, about 700 soldiers, clearing the rubble in the town; another 5,000 have been dispatched to the quake zone, but there are difficulties getting down there with roads damaged, electricity down, communications also were down for some time.

INSKEEP: Okay.

LIM: So, it will be a huge task.

INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Louisa Lim reporting on today's earthquake in China.

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