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Originally published May 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 27, 2008 at 2:30 PM

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Dispatches from China

E-mailed dispatches from earthquake-affected areas in China

Editor's Note: Following are edited dispatches from people with Pacific Northwest ties currently in areas of China affected by the earthquake. They are being sent to The Seattle Times by:

• Steven Margitan, 22, a University of Washington student studying economics and international studies, currently in Chengdu as an exchange student at Sichuan University.

• Geoffrey Morgan, 21, a University of Washington student studying civil and environmental engineering and international studies, currently in Chengdu as an exchange student at Sichuan University.

• Joy Portella, 36, Seattle resident and director of communications for Portland-based relief agency Mercy Corps, currently visiting quake-affected areas.

• Keith Richards, 25, a University of Washington graduate currently teaching English in Chengdu.

May 23, from Joy Portella:

I'm in Beijing preparing to leave China today. I thought I'd be eager to get out of the earthquake zone — away from the stress of sleepless nights and the human misery. But this kind of thing gets under your skin.

I can't stop thinking about the people I met and wondering how they'll get by. I see the faces of grieving parents and homeless families whenever I close my eyes.

More Mercy Corps staff members are due to arrive in China next week. Relief efforts continue and our work to help young people come to grips with the trauma they've experienced is just starting. I'm so proud to be part of these efforts to help.

The Chinese people have been very grateful and unbelievably gracious in a time of tragedy. I can't count how many people — people who have lost everything — have come up to me in the past week thanking me for being in Sichuan, thanking me for caring. I hope to return to see the progress that the resilient people of Sichuan will surely make.

This weekend I'll be sitting on the Olympic Peninsula enjoying the long Memorial Day weekend like many Americans. But my thoughts will be a world away, right here in China.

May 20, from Joy Portella:

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It's estimated that 7,000 of the buildings flattened by last week's earthquake were schools — a disproportionate number of the total buildings destroyed. I visited several of them.

Yesterday Mercy Corps went to the site of Longju Township elementary school where approximately 60 students were killed. I walked among the wreckage, identifying the objects of children: a knapsack here, a notebook there, a small pink shoe a few feet away.

The rebuilding of the Longju school is being financed by one of our partners, the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation [CFPA]. I was there when CFPA announced the 3 million RMB gift [a little under $500,000] that would make rebuilding possible. Even in such a bleak scene, there is some hope for the future.

Walking back from the school, I encountered a 20-something man who addressed me in English. "I graduated from this school ten years ago, and I can't believe it's gone. It's a terrible thing," he said sadly.

A young boy clutched the man's waist. "This is my younger brother," he explained. "He is 9 and he was a student here. He ran out of the school as soon as the earthquake hit." I told the young man that his brother is a lucky boy, a clever boy.

Today we went to Juyuan Township middle school. Estimates of the death toll here vary but it's at least 500 and maybe as many as 900. Nothing is left of the building except a single four-story staircase. The surrounding buildings are all still standing.

The rubble is strewn with flowers — both real and paper — and makeshift memorials. Three young volunteers huddle around a small fire, feeding it steadily with scraps of paper.

I asked my Chinese colleague what they were doing. She explained that many Chinese believe that a dead person gets a second life but must first spend time in heaven. In the Chinese version of heaven, a person needs all of the things she would need on earth. So friends on earth burn paper replicas of money, food, even cars to send them up to heaven.

I like the gesture. It gives the living the satisfaction of providing comfort to the dead.

But ceremonies aren't enough for everyone; many parents in Sichuan Province are angry. Near the end of our visit to Longju Township school, several parents came forward to express their grief and call for justice — from administrators who allowed what the parents called a sub-standard structure to be built, and from teachers whom they considered irresponsible.

I'm not in a position to say who should be held accountable but this I can say for sure: These parents have suffered a loss so heartbreaking I can't even fathom it. Their healing will take a very long time if it happens at all.

May 20, from Geoffrey Morgan:

I never thought I would see Chengdu go into a greater state of chaos than I did when I saw the run on water the day after the earthquake. But last night I think I saw for the first time in my life a melt-down of modern civil society and the effects were quite frightening.

Last night I was working on the computer, trying to get the Web site up and running for our earthquake relief organization [www.chinaearthquakeaid.org], and decided to call a partner to discuss certain aspects of the site. When I tried to call I was immediately cut off and could not figure out why after continued attempts. I then started to notice lots of noise coming from outside — cars honking, dogs barking and people yelling. I went outside to investigate and saw hundreds of people walking, their arms filled with bedding, water, and other necessities and cars as far as the eye could see in gridlock.

Feeling rather alarmed and not knowing what was going on, I turned on the news and got my Chinese family to watch it with me and to help translate anything that I had trouble with. Essentially the news was reporting that within the next 24 to 48 hours there would be lots of aftershocks on the scale of 6.0-7.0 and that everyone should do everything they could to make themselves and their families safe.

The idea that the Chinese government could now predict the occurrence of earthquakes seemed absolutely ridiculous to me. It has been confirmed countless times, by numerous geologists, that no one — not the Chinese government or anyone — can predict when another earthquake will strike or the magnitude of its intensity.

However, I started to think about what possible reasons could make the Chinese government cause outright panic to its citizens. My thoughts started to wander to ideas of dams breaking, disease outbreak, or worse — that the government was trying to cover up by telling the story of more earthquakes. After thinking about this for awhile, I realized how ridiculous these thoughts were. I still have not ruled out the possibility that there was an ulterior motive to telling the people about the earthquakes but I don't think the reason was as severe as I first thought.

My host family on the other hand believed the news whole heartedly and got really scared. They wanted to leave the house now! I tried to tell them there was no need to worry but they would not listen to me. Feeling that I should not leave them, I packed a bag and some bedding.

We piled into a car and somehow a taxi [we were extremely lucky], and headed to my cousins' school where they teach. They chose this location because it had a large open area with no tall buildings to come toppling down on us as we slept. The other reason was that it is a private school and the gate was being heavily guarded so only teachers and their families could go inside. It was actually quite nice sleeping in the school because I found myself a nice patch of grass by a tree on which I could lay back and look up at the moon. However, there was the sound of the chaos in the rest of the city that was not as peaceful.

As for the rest of the city, it seemed as though it turned into a refugee camp in a matter of hours for all of the people who were unable to leave the city. All sports stadiums, college campuses, streets and any other open spaces were covered with people's tents, bedding and tarps. The next morning I passed by a couple of outdoor stores and saw large crowds of people trying to buy tents and any other outdoor gear they could get their hands on. The tension in the air was pretty high and if the police were not there to calm the scene, it could have turned into a small scale riot; these people were pretty desperate to get their tent before the monsoons come.

May 20, from Steven Margitan:

It has been a week since the Sichuan earthquake and I planned to write an update about the situation here soon. At about 9:00 p.m., I went to a nearby hotel to use their wireless Internet and send some emails. At about 10:30 a waitress informed me that CCTV [the national television network] was reporting the government made a warning that a large earthquake would happen today or tomorrow.

The street, normally empty at midnight, was lined with cars and people setting up camp. Roads leading out of Chengdu were filled with cars. The cars lining the street had also been converted into temporary homes. Calls to friends in other regions of the city confirmed it is like Carnaval here, just without the fun. Chengdu has basically converted itself into a one-night [hopefully not more], 12-million-person refugee camp.

Earlier this afternoon there was a three-minute moment of silence to honor the victims of the quake. I was on the 15th floor of a building at the time with a beautiful view of the Chengdu cityscape. As the sirens rang to commence the moment of silence, the city came to a halt with cars and pedestrian traffic stopping in place. As I stood there it was hard to not envision the surrounding buildings crumbling on top of the shaking earth.

It has been hard to get back on a regular schedule here with different earthquake warnings, water stoppages, etc. Class resumed again last Thursday but we still haven't gotten moving and given the fact that class is cancelled for tomorrow, this will continue to disrupt that work. I and a couple of colleagues have started an organization, China Earthquake Aid, to help with the relief/reconstruction efforts in the area. It has been a lot of work but is going along well and we hope to be supplying materials to different local non-profits by the end of the week.

May 20, from Keith Richards:

Every day more and more tents are sold to waiting lines around Chengdu . There are not enough tents to accommodate the people, so many businesses are making tents out of PVC piping and tarp. The tents selling at sporting good stores usually go for 600 RMB or about $86 while a PVC piped tent goes for about 100 RMB or about $14.

Sichuan University and surrounding parks are becoming tent cities to accommodate people who do not want to go back to their homes. Many earthquake victims are migrating to major cities such as Guangyuan and Chengdu. Cleanliness is becoming a big issue. More garbage is visible on the streets everyday and street cleaners are spending extra time cleaning up the trash.

Last night the news sent a message that they were expecting another aftershock of probably 6 to 7 on the Richter scale. This caused a mass panic and exodus of people to the streets and cars jammed the roadways trying to leave Chengdu. I received messages from friends hoping everyone was safe and to prepare for the aftershock. Luckily there was no aftershock and we are safe.

May 19, from Joy Portella:

The city of Mianyang, which lies about 60 miles east of the epicenter of last Monday's earthquake, looks like a giant refugee camp. Makeshift tents of plastic sheeting and tarp dot the road as you approach Mianyang, and then become omnipresent in the city itself.

This culminates at Jiuzhou sports stadium, home to approximately 20,000 displaced Chinese. Almost all of them hail from the destroyed county of Beichuan.

The outside of the stadium and inside halls are crowded with people of all ages: children running and playing, adults talking, eating, some reading or playing cards. Many people are strewn listless on well-worn blankets, just trying to get a moment's peace.

Jiuzhou stadium is surprisingly clean. In fact, I can't figure out where the garbage is — it must be frequently picked up. People tell me the bathrooms are sanitary though the pervasive smell of disinfectant mixed with eau du humanity is overpowering to my nose. The government provides water and food like biscuits and noodles. Locals have converged on the stadium to offer simple Sichuan dishes to lines of people.

The stories of human tragedy are too many and too moving to convey. I met Zhao Kangyu, a 38-year-old woman from Beichuan, as I wandered outside of the stadium. Like many Chinese, Zhao had migrated far outside of her hometown to find work. She wasn't in Beichuan when the quake hit. But her husband, brother and sister-in-law were. They and more than 34,000 others are now gone.

When she heard of the quake, Zhao took a bus and then walked for hours to Beichuan. She found that the county had been totally flattened.

"When I saw what was left of Beichuan, I couldn't stand up. My whole body was shaking and I collapsed," Zhao said through tears.

Now she must rebuild her life, and care for her son, her elderly parents and her orphaned four-year old nephew. She is homeless and has no idea where she will go. But Zhao considers herself fortunate. She expressed great appreciation for the support of the Chinese government, other countries and international groups.

"I am just one of so many refugees, and I am relatively lucky to have my son and my parents. Many others, like orphans, need help more than I do," she said. "I don't know how I will take care of my family, but I will do my best. I will try."

Not all of Jiuzhou is sad. I was invited into a blue tarp tent that had to be no more than 15 feet by 10 feet. The tent is home to 23 people from five families ranging in age from 2 to 78. I sit on the floor next to a diminutive grandma who smiles broadly as she tells her story of being trapped in a field for two days without food or water. She was rescued, and amazingly, no one in the blue tent lost a family member.

These people are lucky indeed.

May 17, from Steven Margitan:

Damage in Chengdu was limited and all the University of Washington students [in an exchange program with Sichuan University] were not harmed. However, we were on the fortunate end of this catastrophe. The university has now evacuated all students in the program to Shanghai that wished to go. I, along with four other students, elected to remain in Chengdu.

This was not a difficult decision — I did not feel comfortable saying goodbye to my host family and wishing them the best of luck in a danger area, while I evacuated to safety. I have come to develop strong bonds with my host dad and trust his assessment that it is safe to remain in the city.

While we are safe for the moment, it is important to turn attention toward the victims of this event. Since Monday, I have begun to work on ways to aid the relief effort and help support victims of this disaster in both the short and long term. I have already organized a trip to the blood bank for classmates, loaded buses with water and other supplies to be delivered to affected areas, and spoken with members of the foreign media to shed light on the situation here.

Two colleagues and I have established China Earthquake Aid, a new foundation designed to solicit foreign funds and distribute them locally for the relief effort. Local non-profit organizations here in China are unable to accept foreign money but through our organization we can purchase and donate the materials these groups need in addition to participating directly in material distribution.

We are hoping to have donation links established by Monday afternoon. As soon as these links are established we will purchase rice and oil that are desperately needed in nearby villages. Second, after the present situation is improved, homes will need to be rebuilt, schools reconstructed and supplied and support given to these communities to get reestablished.

Despite the improved situation in Chengdu, tent cities are still prevalent in parks and at the university where many people are concerned about the structural integrity of the buildings. We are also worried about some looming problems the earthquake has caused.

Many dams received structural damage and there are worries some may fail. This would have catastrophic impacts on the region and city.

The possibility of dam failure is exacerbated by the looming monsoon season that is expected to arrive within 36 hours and will place extra stress on the structures.

May 17, from Joy Portella:

I'm in Chengdu with Mercy Corps. We're getting immediate relief out to survivors in the hard-hit areas, and planning how we can best help these people in the long-term. I've only been here a day or so, and haven't yet been out to the most heavily damaged places, which have very limited access.

Today I decided to go out into the city and gauge the mood with my colleague Guo Xin. A native of Sichuan, Guo Xin tells me that people in Chengdu stayed outside for two days straight after the earthquake because they were so afraid that buildings would fall on them.

We strolled over to the West China hospital complex at Sichuan University. This is the hospital where many of the most seriously injured victims of the earthquake have been taken for treatment. What we found is a grim scene. Carefully typed pages of hundreds of patient names hang on display boards. Anxious relatives gathered around, searching desperately for the names of children, siblings and parents who are missing.

I talked to one of these people, a 21-year-old student at Chengdu's Xi Hua University named Luo Mengying, who was carefully poring over the lists with her 19-year-old sister Luo Meiying. The girls look tired and strained. Their faces reveal worry but they speak calmly, like people who've taken a crash course in composure maintenance.

Students in Chengdu, the girls' family live in a town close to Wenchuan County, the epicenter of the quake. Their hometown is smack in the middle of the hardest-hit area of Sichuan Province. They have thankfully received word that their parents are safe.

But they still hadn't received word about their 6-year-old sister. She was a student at the Yin Xiu primary school, one of many schools in Sichuan that collapsed during the quake.

"Our friend's dad is the principal of the school, and he got word to us that a few students might still be awake in the rubble," says Luo Mengying hopefully. I don't want to tell her that six days after the quake, the chances of finding her little sister alive are not good.

Like many of the people hovering outside of West China hospital, and at hospitals throughout Sichuan Province, the girls are desperately clamoring for clarity on the plight of loved ones. Tens of thousands of people are buried beneath the rubble of homes, schools and businesses, and rescue efforts are slow and arduous. The flow of information, in some cases, is even more labored.

The sisters are joined by Li Xiaodan, a 20-year-old fellow student whose family lives in Wenchuan County. The girls tell me that they can't get to their hometowns because the transportation infrastructure has been knocked out and there is a constant threat of aftershocks.

They worry that their family and friends won't have enough food and water, despite the fact that Chinese soldier are dropping these supplies out of planes to many of the inaccessible areas. With all of the corpses under rubble, there's also a looming public health risk of disease and infection.

On the other side of the hospital I find a makeshift hub of information. There is a row of tents erected by China Mobile, the largest provider of mobile phone services in China, offering free telephone calls to people in heavily damaged parts of the province. Taped up on the tents are hastily-made signs with everything from family information help lines to photos of injured patients looking for their relatives.

May 17, from Keith Richards:

Right now most every TV station is showing earthquake relief programming. The images on the TV are very raw and sad, including a girl being pulled out of the rubble of her school. She was dead but she was still holding a pencil.

We are still experiencing aftershocks. The last few days people have been lining up outside sporting goods stores, buying tents at 600 RMB. They have sold out instantly. Right now less and less people are sleeping in the parks and on the streets in Chengdu, but in Guangyuan and many other hard-hit areas, most everybody is sleeping outside because they are too afraid to go back to their homes and the damage is not fully known to buildings they live in.

May 13, from Geoffrey Morgan:

On Monday afternoon, Steve [Margitan, a fellow UW exchange student] and I decided to go to Starbucks. We noticed a slight rumble that steadily got bigger and bigger. We strolled outside to get a better look and by that time things were really starting to shake — we went outside because we were right next to the door and there were no tables to get under. We then watched the rest of the earthquake from our stance on top of some flower boxes.We were in a reasonably nice part of town and we could see no damage at all.

On my way home was when I started to see the true extent of the damage and what had really happened. Everywhere I went people were milling about the streets afraid to go back into their buildings, crying out to try and find friends and loved ones, cursing their cell phones for not being able to call anyone [220 cell towers fell and my phone did not start working until the next morning].

However, I was still surprised to see so many people in such a state of fear. I had still not yet seen a single piece of damage. In fact the first piece of damage I saw was when I got home and found a crack that runs from the ceiling to the floor in my bedroom, no power, gas or water, and an aunt that was rather afraid. It was from my aunt that I learned some of what was going on and why people were freaking out over what seemed like so little.

She told me that earthquakes were very rare in Chengdu and no one had fully prepared for one or knew what to do. Talking with my cousins who work at elementary school, they said that during class they had never prepared what to do; all they know is that they need to run like crazy to try and get outside of the building. They had never heard of getting beneath desks, standing in doorways, not to run outside until it was over, or not to take an elevator.

The immediate number that I started to hear was that around 100 people died in Chengdu, yet most of the deaths were not directly due to the earthquake itself, but the panic that ensued. Some people got scared and jumped from the tops of buildings to escape, while others were injured by pure panic and stampeding people. It was not until later that night when the power and TV came on that I heard the true damage that the quake had caused.

The UW wants all of us to evacuate so half of the program will be evacuating to Shanghai but five others along with me are going to stay. I decided that the danger is not great enough to warrant leaving and I have too many things to do here and things I could be doing to help. I also do not want to abandon my Chinese family because I am the most able bodied person and if I can help, I will.

Things in the city are slowly going back to normal. Today we had class, shops are all open, yet for the poor people outside the city they are living a nightmare. If there is anything you can do to help please do so. I also really want to try and do something here.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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