Aftershock Warning Sets Chengdu on Guard

In the wake of a powerful earthquake that devastated the region last week, an official warning of a major aftershock sends Chengdu, China, into a panic. Millions of people spent the night sleeping outside, others fled the city.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, like the people of Iraq, people in southwestern China cannot be sure what happens next. And overnight they received an official warning: authorities said there could be a major aftershock to last week's earthquake in China. NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Chengdu, the city where millions of people decided they would rather sleep outside.

LOUISA LIM: I was outside in a small neighborhood park interviewing people who had been sleeping outdoors since the earthquake. Suddenly the park filled up with people jostling to commandeer a space to sleep on the ground.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: There has just been an emergency warning issued telling people that there's a large possibility of an aftershock. And immediately after this warning was broadcast, suddenly there was just a huge number of cars heading as far out of (unintelligible) city as possible. And people started running out into the streets with their tents under their arms, their quilts, and now I'm also heading out of the city with everybody else on a moto-rail.

(Soundbite of honking horns)

LIM: You can hear the cars peeling past. There are people lining the street. Everybody is sleeping outside tonight.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

LIM: This is a traumatized population. No one is willing to take any more chances. One street sleeper, Hock Wu(ph), describes the mood.

Mr. HOCK WU: Should be scared but not as much panic as it is. After the first earthquake, 8.0 grade, after that we feel that a six or seven grade of earthquake is nothing. It's just like a shaking.

LIM: Slowly the park settles down. Most people are asleep. Many have umbrellas propped over their heads. Small groups of people chat quietly. There's a real sense of community among strangers. An older architect is reassuring a clearly terrified young woman that Chengdu's buildings are safe. The young woman, 27-year-old Fong Chung(ph), is hunched forward in a chair, biting her nails nervously.

Ms. FONG CHUNG: (Through translator) Sometimes I just can't sleep. I wake up feeling like it's an earthquake and I don't know whether I'm dreaming or it's really an earthquake. I'm too worried.

LIM: It's now 5:30 in the morning and I'm heading back into the center of town. I can see people getting up now all along the sides of the road, and my driver here estimates 90 percent of Chengdu's population slept outside last night. When you ask them how much longer they're going to continue sleeping outside, no one knows.

LIM: Later in the morning, outside a row of military surplus stores, gougers are charging about $60, five times the normal price for a tent. Lines of people are queuing up at the shops in the hope of getting a cheaper one.

Someone's come to try and buy a tent and the shop assistant just says: no, no, there are no tents left. He's trying to push money into her hand. She's not letting him take the tent.

Volunteer Su Ming(ph) is trying to buy a helmet for protection in the quake zone. He worries about how much more people can take.

Mr. SU MING (Volunteer): (Through translator) It seems people are at their limit. There have been too many aftershocks. And the media reports of the injured being rescued has added to the psychological pressure.

LIM: It's afternoon now. The wind is blowing, rain is forecast, rumors swirl another big one is on its way. Groups of people are heading to a nearby stadium for shelter. Schools here have been shut for the day. Many people have given up on the pretense of leading a normal life.

For the traumatized population of this quake-hit zone, the psychological ordeal is not yet over.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Chengdu.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: When you hear reports like that, you know you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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