Relief Workers In China Dig For Quake Victims

Rescue crews and heavy equipment are moving into a remote area of western China that suffered from a devastating series of earthquakes Wednesday. While more than 600 people have died, hundreds have been pulled from the rubble.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, Im Steve Inskeep.

And let's go straight to China, which is working to get help to the scene of an earthquake. NPR's Louisa Lim has been tracking rescue operations. She's in Shanghai and on the line once again.

Hi, Louisa.

LOUISA LIM: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Is it clear today how widespread the damage is?

LIM: Well, the picture is becoming a bit clearer. But really it's a logistical nightmare for the Chinese authorities dealing with this earthquake, given the remoteness of the area thats been hit. It's 12 hours' drive from the provincial capital, high up on the Tibetan Plateau at 13,000 feet. It's very, very cold up there. The temperature is forecast to drop to 14 degrees overnight, and so it's a really difficult mission, launching a rescue attempt.

And there is huge devastation. We're hearing that about 15,000 houses have been destroyed. A hundred thousand people need to be moved to safety. Thats basically the entire population of the county. And we are hearing that although there is some good news - some people are being pulled out of the rubble alive, 900 at the latest count, and Buddhist monks are out in force helping with the rescue effort - but there are still great difficulties.

Rescuers report they're suffering from shortages of excavators, of medical supplies. Even supplies of food and water and gas are running very low. And some of the rescuers whove flown in are suffering from altitude sickness, including the sniffer dogs. So all of these things are complicating the rescue efforts.

INSKEEP: You said Buddhist monks. I suppose if you're on the Tibetan Plateau theyve got the manpower and the organization to be helpful.

LIM: Well, they do, but thats one of the problems that is emerging. There's been a lot of devastation in the Buddhist monasteries up there. We are hearing reports from the biggest monastery in the region, it's called Thrangu Monastery, and they're saying that it was totally devastated. All the buildings have collapsed and dozens of monks are missing. Some estimates say up to 200 people have been killed.

And this also leads us to some politically sensitive territory for the Chinese, because this area is part of the world where the Tibetans did take part in protests that swept across the Tibetan Plateau two years ago, in many cases led by Buddhist monks. So there are tensions between the different communities.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Which must make everything a little bit more complex.

I'd like to ask, though, because there was a huge earthquake in China a couple of years ago, Louisa, as you know very well - were any lessons from that earthquake applicable now to the rescue effort?

LIM: Well, I mean China says that it has learned lessons. And the lessons that they say theyve learned are that they reported very soon after the earthquake happened, they reported that it had happened and they setup emergency coordination offices very quickly indeed. And China is obviously capable of launching these huge rescue operations. But here, again, it's in a different part of the world and the location, the topography, does mean hat it's a different kind of rescue operation to mount.

And there are some chilling reminders as well. We are hearing also more details about schools collapsing, which was a huge problem and a very controversial issue in the last earthquake. And we are hearing more details of that emerging today. We had a provincial official saying 11 schools had been destroyed in the quake so far. The latest death toll was 66 students and 10 teachers confirmed dead. But without a doubt that figure will rise.

INSKEEP: Hmm.

LIM: Reports in one Chinese newspaper said at one of those schools alone, 200 students were buried in the debris and dozens of teachers digging through the rubble. So it is a very grim picture.

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks very much.

Thats NPR's Louisa Lim. She is in Shanghai, bringing us the latest that we can learn from the Tibetan Plateau, where was an earthquake.

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