Witness to a Disaster: The Sichuan Quake NPR's Melissa Block was in Chengdu, China, when last week's massive earthquake struck. Since then, she has reported from the scene of the devastation, where families have lost homes and loved ones. Host Renee Montagne talks with Block about what she'll remember most after she returns home.
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Witness to a Disaster: The Sichuan Quake

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Witness to a Disaster: The Sichuan Quake

Witness to a Disaster: The Sichuan Quake

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As of this morning, China now puts the death toll from its earthquake at more than 55,000. NPR's Melissa Block was in Sichuan Province when the earthquake struck. Ever since, she's been sending reports, of stories, some almost too painful to hear - like this one, where parents are trying to identify their children in the ruins.

MELISSA BLOCK: When the body is set down, parents crowd around to see if he's there son, and soon enough, four women collapse in grief at his side. They're rocking in pain and wailing as they recognize the boy as their own.

One woman finally lowers the boy's arm, one final gesture of loving kindness.

MONTAGNE: Melissa's time in China is coming to an end, and we reached her in the city of Chengdu for a look back and what she's seen and heard.

Melissa, good morning.

BLOCK: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We are coming up on the two-week mark since the earthquake struck. What are your impressions now about how this story is unfolding?

BLOCK: You know, I have focused, I think, so much on individual stories over the last 10 days or so that I don't think I've started to wrap my mind around the enormous scope of what's to come. I mean, when you talk about 5 million people left homeless, the government's asking for 3.3 million tents. Those numbers are just so mind-boggling, and it speaks to the enormous scope of what has to be done here, how many lives have been completely uprooted.

I mean, what happens to these cities that were destroyed? Take the city of Bechuan at, like, 9,000 people estimated killed - of the population there - and officials say that every building in that city that was not destroyed is unsafe.

So that city probably won't be rebuilt where it was at all. They're talking now about moving to a neighboring county, building a new city from scratch. I mean, this whole area's going to be completely transformed.

MONTAGNE: You were in Chengdu when the earthquake hit because ALL THINGS CONSIDERED was getting ready for a long-planned week of broadcasts from there. Take us back to the stories that you prepared, and Robert Siegel, your colleagues, before the earthquake changed everything.

BLOCK: I had finished 10 stories from my previous reporting trip here, and a number of those we've had to put on the shelf completely. Maybe they'll run some other time. Stories about going to a cooking school - I learned to cook Kung Pao Chicken. Obviously, that story just would sound horrible in a week like this.

But there are other stories that in a way, I think have become more timely. I had done a story about concern over dams. And as you know, since the earthquake, those concerns have been heightened greatly. So that story became more relevant.

I had also done a story about pandas. There are panda research centers and bases here in Sichuan, one of them right here in Chengdu, and I had gone there a month ago and done a story about the work that they're doing, trying to save the panda from extinction through breeding programs.

That story, which ran last night on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, got reshaped because we could talk about, you know, how the pandas reacted during the earthquake. They got very scared. They climbed up trees, and they were emitting these panicked cries. And also they're talking about sending forestry official teams up into the mountains, trying to see if the pandas that are still in the wild are injured, and if they are, trying to get them back to the base here in Chengdu.

So a lot of new information about pandas that I think is really interesting, given what's happened.

MONTAGNE: Melissa, you're coming home this weekend, and there just must be a flood of images and sounds that will stay with you.

BLOCK: Yeah, I think, you know, things that will stay with me for the rest of my life, I'm sure. And especially, I keep thinking about the voice of a young mother, a woman named Fu Ganyu(ph), who I met along with her husband, and their building had been destroyed. Her son, who was not quite two, was buried in the rubble along with his grandparents, and they had managed to get heavy equipment to come try to dig through the rubble and find them. And she was there climbing on the rubble pile, and she was, in this incredibly anguished voice, with this just heartbreaking pain, calling out to him: Mom is coming for you. And it just keeps resonating deep in my bones.

MONTAGNE: Melissa, thank you very much, and have a safe trip back.

BLOCK: Thanks very much, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Melissa Block, speaking to us from Chengdu, China. You can find all of their stories at NPR.org and also follow a blog of personal experiences from our reporters and our hosts there in China. That's at NPR.org/chinadiary.

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