SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The head of China's government said today that the death toll from the May 12 earthquake there could climb as high as 80,000, up from the current figure of more than 60,000. He spoke in a devastated township near the epicenter of the quake. NPR's Anthony Kuhn also visited the township and filed this report about the challenges of saving residents and rebuilding communities in mountainous parts of Southwest China.
(Soundbite of running water)
ANTHONY KUHN: The dark, strong currents of the Min River flow through the township of Yingxiu and towards the provincial capital, Chengdu. Today, United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon came here by helicopter and met with Premier Wen Jiabao. Chinese military officials told Ban that 8,000 of the town's 18,000 residents are either dead or missing.
Premier Wen said that the government's efforts were now centered on resettling the homeless, planning reconstruction and preventing further disasters, such as aftershocks and landslides.
(Soundbite of crowd of people)
KUHN: Nearly two weeks after the quake, survivors are still trickling into Yingxiu after walking for days out of the mountains. Some are boarding trucks and helicopters to be taken to hospitals and refugee centers.
Among them was a short, round woman named Gao Panyong.
Ms. GAO PANYONG (Earthquake Survivor, China): (Speaking foreign language).
KUHN: Our village was hard hit, she recalls. Now I've got nothing left. My mother died. My husband died. My two children and I barely made it out alive. Everyone in our village fled. All the dead bodies smelled awful.
Seven thousand soldiers have set up camp in the town. They're carrying out body bags, clearing rubble and setting up tents for the refugees.
A rural dentist from East China named Hu Xianzhong is among the thousands of volunteers also working here. Clad in a white jumpsuit, he sprays the refugee camp with disinfectant. He's also sprayed many of the corpses that continue to be dug out of the rubble. He remembers coming across the body of one young student.
Mr. HU XIANZHONG (Dentist, East China): (Through translator) This kid was an elementary school student. When I found her, she was holding this pen. See, the pen was smashed by a boulder right here. I picked it up and kept it as a souvenir. The kid was wearing a red kerchief. It was so sad.
KUHN: In Yingxiu and elsewhere, soldiers are putting up light, prefabricated homes that will house refugees until something more permanent can be built. The government says it will take about three months to build temporary homes for the roughly 5 million homeless.
Zhang Jian is an official with the local prefecture government. He says getting all the residents into one place is not easy.
Mr. ZHANG JIAN (Government Official, China): (Speaking foreign language).
KUHN: These survivors have lived here for generations, he said. They're unwilling to leave their hometown, and they've set up tents next to the ruins of their former homes. But this is not good for controlling the spread of diseases, so the government has moved them all here.
In the longer term, Zhang says, officials will still have to decide whether to rebuild the shattered town in its current location, or build it from scratch elsewhere. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Yingxiu, China.
SIMON: And you can read the latest updates from our producers and reporters in China at NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.