MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
And I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up we're going to be talking to a Marine colonel on a U.S. Navy ship off the coast of Myanmar. He's waiting to go in with cyclone relief.
BRAND: But first the death toll in the Sichuan province in China is rising by the thousands after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck earlier today.
CHADWICK: Melissa Block from All Things Considered is in Sichuan. She was in Chengdu, the capital of the province, when the quake struck. That's about 60 miles south of the epicenter. She left Chengdu and began driving toward the region hardest hit. Melissa, where are you now?
MELISSA BLOCK: We are trying to get to the city of Dujiangyan which is northwest of Chengdu, not too far. And we've heard that there were buildings that were destroyed. There are reports, unconfirmed reports, that a school and a hospital's collapsed, so we are just trying to get there.
And in Chengdu when the earthquake hit at about 2:30 this afternoon, it was quite dramatic, Alex. I was in doing an interview, and the building started to shake and rumble. Everybody ran out into the street. Chengdu is a huge city, millions and millions of people, and everybody fled buildings. The ground was undulating. We saw bricks and stones falling off the tops of buildings, everybody looking up, obviously, to see if any windows were falling down.
As we were walking through the city trying to get back across town, we saw patients from the hospital who were evacuated out into the street. We saw some people who had been injured by falling debris, a man with a big gash on his head. Another woman whose foot was badly injured, and was being carried on a friend's back to try to get medical help. Later on in the evening, gas lines had been cut off. There were fears of aftershocks, and the gas lines could rupture. There were some water mains that apparently broke downtown. Chengdu came through remarkably unscathed, lots of high rise buildings all through the city. And as far as we can tell, there was no huge damage to those, although a lot of internal structural damage.
CHADWICK: So you are driving north from there. What are conditions like on the roads?
BLOCK: The roads are jammed with people. I have to say that I haven't seen a lot of emergency vehicles headed up this way. I've seen a few, but not many. Mostly what you see are crowds and crowds of people alongside the road. It's now, you know, the middle of the night, and people are outside. I've seen people playing cards along the highway. I've seen family that (unintelligible). No one wants to be inside. There are a lot of series of aftershocks. Clearly people are going to be spending the night out of doors, some in their cars, some in parks, some wherever they can find room. And again, a lot of concern about what could still be to come with aftershocks after an earthquake of this magnitude.
You hear reports on the radio urging people not to go back inside, and there are other earthquakes to follow. Do not jump out of windows, that people have been injured by glass, and by falling, by jumping out of windows. So there is still a lot of concern about what is still to come. And again, we still haven't been to the areas that have been the most severely hit.
CHADWICK: Well, the reports we're reading on the Associated Press and on Reuters speak of casualties in the thousands. There's one note about a collapsed chemical plant with reportedly hundreds of people trapped inside. Also word of a collapsed school with maybe nine hundred kids trapped in it, so it sounds pretty awful.
BLOCK: We're hearing those same reports, too, and that's why we're trying (unintelligible)
CHADWICK: We lost that.
BLOCK: I was just in that city seeing people on their cell phones trying to text. I see people's multiple cell phones in multiple hands trying to contact their loved ones. Communications have been really sketchy, and a lot of people just haven't been able to get good information about their family and their friends.
CHADWICK: You know, I'm a little surprised that we're able to talk with you because from the reports that we've read on the Associated Press, I kind of think that things would be all torn down over there, but we're speaking with you by cell phone as you are driving along this road.
BLOCK: Right, and we're going through big huge suburbs where buildings are intact, and is by no means this area leveled. It seems to be areas farther out in the provinces (unintelligible) or near the epicenter but it can (unintelligible).
CHADWICK: And at that point, the cell phone connection to Melissa Block in Sichuan province went dead. But, Melissa will be back later this afternoon on All Things Considered with more reports, we expect.
BRAND: We go now to Beijing for the Chinese government response. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is with us now. And Anthony, what is the government doing?
ANTHONY KUHN: The government is in full-out mobilization mode. The head of the government, Wen Jiabao has flown to Sichuan province to personally direct the government's operations there. Teams of rescue workers are forming up in Beijing to fly out there. Also the military is trying to get out to this remote area in western Sichuan province. And, of course, they are having difficulty because a lot of the roads to this area, which is halfway up the Tibetan plateau, have been cut by landslides. A lot of the communication links are down. And so they are facing a very tough struggle just to get out there and to get information on the extent of the damage.
BRAND: Now we heard that some of the buildings that collapsed were schools. Some nine hundred students were trapped in one school. Do we know what's happening with them, and what the government is doing to help them?
KUHN: Well there were some parts of Sichuan province that I say are in these mountainous areas, and are inhabited by Tibetans and Chow minority, ethnic minority people. And in some of these areas 80 percent of the buildings collapsed, and that means schools and hospitals. And how many of those people have been rescued is not clear. And we're afraid that the death toll is going to climb much higher.
BRAND: Now most of China's major cities are in high-risk earthquake zones. What are the earthquake precautions in terms of the building materials? Are these buildings able to withstand big earthquakes and aftershocks?
KUHN: I think in major cities they're in a lot better shape. They've had experience including, for example, the last major earthquake in 1976 was the huge 7.8 quake in Tangshan, not far from Beijing, which killed nearly a quarter-of-a-million people. So they've taken a lot of precautions with buildings, and in emergency response tactics. But out in these far flung areas, I think conditions are not as good. Basically it's a strong blow to China, particularly after the crippling snows this year, that had a very big impact on the economy.
BRAND: And then the Olympics are coming up.
KUHN: That's right. There was no reports of damage to any of the major structures like the big Bird's Nest stadium, some of the huge landmark buildings that are going up around the city for this. But Beijing was hard hit too, and also office workers ran out of their shaking buildings into the streets. And there's been just a lot of concern about people trying to find relatives, and to make sure that everyone's alright.
BRAND: Now in the province of Sichuan, I understand Sichuan is home to 40 percent of the natural gas preserves in China. So has there been any disruption in service there?
KUHN: We're still trying to find that out. There are several large gas fields in the provinces, and state-owned firms that run those gas fields have not reported any damage or disruption yet. Another thing people are looking at very closely is the Three Gorges Dam, a massive, more than mile long dam across the mighty Yangtze River that forms a huge reservoir. And there's concern about two things. One, that the weight of this water in the reservoir could trigger seismic activity or earthquakes. And that if the dam breaks, it would just be a huge catastrophe. And many experts, and even government officials, have warned of this, but we have no reports of any damage to the dam or any indication that the earthquake was caused by the weight of the water.
BRAND: And we're talking billions of gallons of water?
KUHN: That's correct. We're talking of billions of gallons of water. We're talking heavily populated areas around the banks of the river. It's a massive area with many, many people living around it.
BRAND: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing. Thank you, Anthony.
KUHN: Thanks Madeleine.
BRAND: And our coverage continues at npr.org. You can find updates there throughout the day from our team in Sichuan province.