Reviewing the Disaster in Chengdu

Scott Simon talks with Robert Siegel about his week in the heart of the Chinese earthquake. Siegel recounts vivid scenes, including a family that walked 20 miles from their destroyed village to another. He says the relief effort is vigorous as emergency vehicles storm north, but millions of people are left without homes and are sleeping outside under improvised shelter.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

My colleague, Robert Siegel, host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, was in southwestern China when the earthquake struck on Monday. He joins us from Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan. Robert, thanks for being with us.

ROBERT SIEGEL: Hiya, Scott, good to talk.

SIMON: Robert, you've been up there for - in the area where the damage was greatest for most of the week. What are some of the images or scenes that stay with you?

SIEGEL: The scenes that stay with me the most, I think, are first a family that had walked about 20 miles from their village, which had been totally destroyed, they said, to a village that had been significantly destroyed and sat like millions of people in this part of the country now under an improvised shelter, a plastic tarp thrown over some bamboo rods that they hung up in the trees and just waited, an extended family, a mother with her 1-year-old son, her in-laws, her mother, all of them just waiting for someone to evacuated them in a town where the village leader - it's a small town - stood and answered my questions very patiently. And when I asked him, of course through an interpreter, what he knew of his family, he said well, I assume they're all buried, and I just have to stay here and do my job. And he started weeping as he said it, and I don't think I'll ever forget that.

SIMON: What have you noticed about the relief effort?

SIEGEL: Well it's vigorous. The first night, six hours I suppose after the earthquake, the Chinese took over the big expressway north out of Chengdu city. Now the city here, we should explain, do not think New Orleans after Katrina. This is a functioning city. All infrastructure is working, and people are here.

The expressway north to the affected areas was for emergency vehicles only, and as we were competing with them on side roads trying to get up north, we could see an endless stream of emergency vehicles: ambulances, trucks with soldiers or armed police they would say here, police vehicles, everybody storming north to get to the areas affected, to actually load people up and take them back down to cities that could treat them.

I was taken at first with the absence of helicopters. I didn't think it was a high-tech as we even saw in Katrina, and we haven't yet seen what I think is going to be the real effort after all of the bodies are dealt with and all of the injured are cared for, which is millions of people without homes.

SIMON: About five million is the statistic we're hearing here.

SIEGEL: Yes. Some of them, some - I don't know how they're counting, exactly. Some will be able to go back into their homes, if they're declared safe. There are some people in the city here in Chengdu who've been sleeping outside because they haven't gotten the green light from an inspector.

But then there are entire villages and towns were the people may have survived, but the housing hasn't, and somebody's going to have to put up a tremendous number of temporary and then permanent homes for them.

SIMON: Robert, do you think you've learned something about China or the Chinese people this week?

SIEGEL: Well you know, Scott, I've sort of - not surprisingly, I mean I've been thinking about places I've been in times of great crisis, being in Manhattan on 9/11 or going down to New Orleans after Katrina, and I think that while I - there may be things I learned about the Chinese, but I think that we are more alike at times like this than we are different.

They're putting up with tremendous tragedy. They are presented with tragedies by the millions. I'm just impressed with the way that they bear up under the whole thing. It's an extraordinary test of a people's will.

SIMON: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: NPR's Robert Siegel's been reporting all week from there in southwestern China, hit by last Wednesday's earthquake. You can read ongoing coverage by NPR reports and producers who are in China, Robert included, at npr.org/chinadiary.

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SIMON: This is NPR News.

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