The breadth of devastation: Sichuan earthquakes, 2008 and 2013

On May 12, 2008, I had plane tickets that less than three weeks later were to take me from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, and then on to Chengdu, China, the capital of Sichuan province in the southwestern region of the country. But that day, a massive earthquake struck Sichuan.

And just this past Saturday, another one hit.

I was going to Chengdu to teach through my graduate school’s project to start the first creative writing program at a Chinese university. Though I was a little nervous about my first trip to Asia, I was excited: I believed in the work we were doing.

On that day, I was out in New England visiting my family before flying back west to finish preparations for the trip. (I was the program coordinator for the project.) My brother and I had stopped at his office, and when he opened his laptop, he said that there had been an earthquake in China.

China’s a big place. While a little warning bell went off in the logistics part of my mind, I ignored it. I had no way of knowing from that quick headline just how catastrophic the earthquake had been.

My director called me that evening, and we discussed the quake and what we wanted to do about our trip.

We didn’t go.

Since all of us on the project had already purchased itineraries, we changed them and still went to China, replacing our time in Chengdu with Beijing. But we didn’t teach in Sichuan.

Having lived through the Northridge earthquake of 1994 in southern California, my director was concerned about the aftershocks, many of which were still shaking Sichuan and would continue to do so. However, aftershocks aside, I knew that the likelihood of two major earthquakes striking within weeks of each other would be rare: that danger was over.

But we didn’t go.

We have a tendency to evaluate natural disasters and crises based solely on death tolls. The 2008 earthquake in Sichuan killed 70,000, with another 20,000 missing still today. The 6.6-magnitude quake that struck the same region last Saturday has a reported casualty count at about 200 and more than 11,500 injured.

Based on these numbers alone, the more recent quake pales in comparison to the one in 2008.

But the more important number is that the United Nation estimates at least 1.52 million people are affected across 69 counties in China. (The 2008 quake affected 45 million.) And “affected” here doesn’t simply mean people who felt the tremors.

A World Vision staff member speaks with a resident in Sichuan province, China, in front of a quake-destroyed home. (Photo: World Vision)

Two important factors, among others, contribute to how devastating the long-term effect of an earthquake becomes -- first, how prepared the region is to respond (Sichuan has spent these past five years preparing); and second, how quickly agencies like World Vision are able to provide aid.

Still, despite the province’s preparations, many of the 1.52 million people affected by the quake have lost everything. Again. Including power, water, food, heat, and shelter.

Though I shared my director’s concern about continuing aftershocks, the real reason we chose to change our trip and not go to Chengdu in 2008 was the hazardous living conditions created by such a catastrophe. We didn’t want to visit a place where roads, bridges, and buildings had been reduced to rubble; where water, food, heating, and sanitation capabilities were knocked out; and where there was the possibility of disease outbreaks due to these causes.

We didn’t want to visit -- but the entire region was living like that, and they didn’t want to, either. Nor do they a second time today.

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Matthew Brennan is the blog manager at World Vision U.S.

Read more about World Vision's response to the recent deadly earthquake in Sichuan province, China.

In the wake of a crisis, children suffer most. World Vision is often one of the first organizations to begin relief work after a disaster, and we remain on the ground for the long haul, rebuilding communities and restoring hope. This week, World Vision staff have mobilized to distribute hygiene kits and Child-Friendly Kits to families made homeless by the earthquake in Sichuan.

Consider making a one-time donation to our Disaster Response Fund. Your gift will help us rush emergency supplies like life-saving food, clean water, medical supplies, and shelter to survivors of sudden-onset emergencies, like the recent earthquake in China.

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