Quake-Weary Chinese Take Life to Tents

A tent on the outskirts of Chengdu

A tent on the outskirts of Chengdu, China. Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

The latest from the relief effort in China, where thousands are afraid to sleep in their houses and are camping outdoors. Brendan Banaszak, is part of the NPR team that's been reporting from its base in Chengdu, China.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

It's been more than a week since that massive earthquake hit China's Sichuan Province, leaving more than 70,000 people dead or missing and millions of people homeless. But Monday, television news reports cited government officials who warned of a possible big aftershock. The government backed away from that forecast yesterday, but the warning had already triggered a run on tents throughout the region.

Even people whose homes were left intact by the quake were sleeping outside, fearing their luck had run out. Meantime, rescue workers are shifting into recovery mode as hope of finding any more survivors fades. Joining us now is NPR producer Brendan Banaszak on the line from Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province. He's there with a team of NPR reporters and producers who have been covering this story. Hey, Brendan.

BRENDAN BANASZAK: Hey, Rachel. How you doing?

MARTIN: Doing well. So, let's start out by talking about the impact of that warning of the aftershock. Turned out not to be that substantial, but it did cause a lot of chaos, right? All these people started getting these tents and sleeping outside.

BANASZAK: Yeah, I wouldn't use the term, necessarily, chaos. It was certainly a controlled chaos, perhaps, but about 10:30 at night local time here on Monday, from reports we heard they broke into the news that evening and broke into programming saying that there was this prediction of an aftershock, and everyone here in Chengdu basically picked up their belongings and made their way to the soccer stadium and I'm sure other parts around the city as well.

But the soccer stadium is right next to the hotel we're staying at and they just set up camp there for the evening. And people were just sort of streaming in throughout the night and there are even cases of people who didn't even see the broadcast but had received text messages or phone calls or what have you from friends and family and just made their way there for fear of sleeping in their homes or sleeping anywhere where there would be a roof.

MARTIN: And I read a blog post from NPR reporter Louisa Lim and she had to sleep outside. Sounds like she got caught in a melee and ended up having to camp out herself.

BANASZAK: She did. Louisa ended up having to camp out on a bench a little bit outside of the city limits here, and it was because, from what I'd heard, her taxi driver had heard about this and wanted to make sure he would get home to his family and check them out and basically sort of left her there. And she returned safely in one piece the next morning.

MARTIN: Have you checked out some of these tent cities? Have you spoken with people there? What's the tone like?

BANASZAK: I have. I mean, I've definitely been at the soccer stadium here the last two nights, sort of seeing what's going on. And the tone is really a strange one, I mean, people are certainly worried, that's why they're camping out. But at the same time it's sort of this tailgate atmosphere about it. I mean, there are people worried but there are also a bunch of guys sitting around playing cards, drinking beers, just having fun, and the kids love it. I mean, there are kids all over.

There's a playground over there. And I think I was there, I don't know, up until about 11 o'clock last night and the kids were just running wild, I mean, you may have been in the middle of a beautiful Saturday afternoon. And it's just sort of, I mean, I think it's sort of that snow-day mentality almost for children...

MARTIN: Yeah.

BANASZAK: Where it's something out of the ordinary and they're with a bunch of friends and they can stay up late.

MARTIN: I heard Robert Siegel, who you've been working with, interview some folks who actually had homes that were intact and were still sleeping outside. Any - did you get any sense from those folks when they'll go home? When they'll feel safe enough to go back to those structures?

BANASZAK: The attitude has sort of been day by day. We'll just sort of see what happens. I mean, even yesterday, after the government sort of retracted this initial statement that was made by the Sichuan Provincial Seismological Bureau of this aftershock being predicted. They still said, ah, well, we understand that, but it's better safe than sorry and they're going to stay out there.

And in fact, in talking to these people who were standing in line to buy tents yesterday, some of them were amazed that we weren't buying tents and we weren't making our way down to the stadium. I mean, one woman was shocked that Robert was staying in a hotel that, you know, he was eight stories off the ground. They just couldn't believe that he would be doing that.

MARTIN: Yesterday, rescuers pulled two people alive from the rubble, miraculously. I mean, it's been over a week. You have to wonder how those people survived. But the odds for future rescues are clearly becoming slim. But I understand that late last week you yourself witnessed a rescue in a city outside Chengdu. Can you tell us what you saw?

BANASZAK: Yeah, I was - we were coming back from an area in the country and stopped in a village called Chenghua in Sichuan Province here, and we came across this scene at a factory. It was sort of an industrial area and there was this factory that at one point was five stories and was now, kind of, you know, two or maybe three. And they thought that there were three survivors inside the rubble, and we stuck around for a few hours and eventually they did pull one man out.

It was really sort of an interesting story. I mean, a guy who didn't even work at this plant, it was a fertilizer factory, but had just been a delivery man. He came by during his regular deliveries, the earthquake struck, and he became stuck, and his wife and daughter were there. And they eventually freed the man and it was, it was really an amazing scene and seeing all these soldiers there, I mean, with - just with huge smiling faces, just so proud that they had been able to pull someone alive from the rubble.

MARTIN: And his family was there when he was rescued?

BANASZAK: His family was there when he was rescued. His daughter and wife had been brought in earlier and had been having some contact with him while this was going on and they were right there when the rescue occurred.

MARTIN: There have been a lot of reports, Brendan, about how this tragedy has cultivated this new kind of nationalism, this kind of national pride, patriotism and a spirit of volunteerism. Have you seen evidence of that?

BANASZAK: I have. I mean, there's definitely been - just over the weekend, there was a little rally going on at a shopping center here with a lot of university students who were collecting money and were part of a blood drive as well. And there's been a lot of, sort of, like, t-shirt sales.

You're seeing more and more "I heart China" t-shirts showing up on people walking around the city. And, I mean, there's all sorts of banners about and stickers that have a red background and a ribbon on it and it's, I mean, it's very much this movement of patriotism and coming together as a country here in the wake of this disaster.

MARTIN: I mean, you can't think of that logo, "I heart China," without thinking about "I heart New York," right? And the aftermath of 9/11. That's - I don't know if that's...

BANASZAK: Absolutely. I mean, I've definitely sort of drawn that same sort of comparison. I mean, it's definitely this sense of pride of being Chinese and coming together and sort of showing this sense of unity in the face of a natural disaster like this.

MARTIN: NPR producer Brendan Banaszak on the line from Chengdu, China, in Sichuan Province. He's among a team of NPR reporters and producers who've been doing a great job of covering this story since the beginning. Hey, Brendan, thanks very much.

BANASZAK: Thanks, Rachel.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

Next on the show, build your own island, put it far enough off the coast, and you just may get out of paying taxes. I can't think of a downside to sharing a floating sea pod with dozens of Libertarians, but maybe I haven't thought this thing out enough.

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