How Early Warning Systems Brought Rapid Relief to Quake Victims
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2017-08-17 02:26:08

At about 9:20 p.m. on Aug. 8, an earthquake rippled through Jiuzhaigou, a county in southwestern China’s Sichuan province. According to official measurements released by the China Earthquake Networks Center (CENC), the earthquake had a magnitude of 7.0 and originated 20 kilometers below the earth’s surface. The quake left 25 people dead and more than 500 injured.

Outside of the tragic news of mortalities — and the fact that Jiuzhaigou’s exquisitely preserved lakes, mountains, and waterfalls are a UNESCO World Heritage site — public interest in the incident stems from Jiuzhaigou’s proximity to the site of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, which also occurred in Sichuan’s Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture and left an enduring scar on the minds of those who remember it.

In many respects, it is impossible to compare the Jiuzhaigou earthquake with the one that occurred in Wenchuan nine years ago. However, such a comparison may open a window into how China’s disaster relief efforts have improved over the years.

When disaster strikes, speed is of the utmost importance. In this regard, the response to Jiuzhaigou has been adequate. Just 40 minutes after the earthquake, the China National Commission for Disaster Reduction released a rapid assessment of conditions on the ground. Almost simultaneously, the CENC released maps of the affected areas. After 75 minutes, the China Earthquake Administration initiated its Level 1 disaster response protocol and sent a team to the disaster zone to begin carrying out emergency relief efforts. First responders from the provincial earthquake administration set off just minutes later.

By and large, the response was well-coordinated and professional. Immediately, various government departments rolled out emergency response plans. The Ministry of Civil Affairs provided timely updates on conditions in the area, while the China Earthquake Administration released a steady stream of reports with the latest and most up-to-date information available. Agencies responsible for health, electricity, and transportation all undertook measures to ensure that vital lifelines to the region were kept open. Firefighters, the armed police force, and the military all carried out rescue missions in their areas of responsibility.

In the event of a major disaster, delays in the collection, verification, and dissemination of information often mean that the quality and quantity of available information fail to satisfy the public, allowing rumors to predominate. In 2008, inaccurate information about the strength of potential earthquake aftershocks led to unnecessary evacuations in Sichuan’s provincial capital, Chengdu. Rumors were a persistent problem when we were reliant largely on newspapers, television, and radio for news about disasters.

China sits at the juncture of the Pacific Ring of Fire and the Himalayas. While it is impossible to completely prevent disasters, greater professionalism and improved technology can help to minimize their effects.

In the aftermath of this latest earthquake, however, rumors were largely snuffed out before they could gain traction. Government departments used messaging apps like WeChat, microblogging sites like Weibo, text messages, and other means to provide reliable, accurate, and prompt updates and to refute hearsay almost as soon as it surfaced.

Relief efforts in Jiuzhaigou were decidedly more high-tech than for past earthquakes. Wenchuan TV — the local station for the region struck in 2008 — issued an earthquake warning 40 seconds before last week’s quake hit, using systems developed and implemented after the previous disaster. China is now the third country — after Japan and the United States — to possess a complete earthquake early warning system. Applied remote sensing technology produced the initial high-resolution satellite images allowing the provincial command center to plan rescue routes, judge conditions on the ground, and evaluate the likelihood of secondary incidents such as aftershocks, extreme weather, and outbreaks of disease.

The earliest information on the Jiuzhaigou earthquake was released by an AI-powered robot at the CENC, which produced a report on the situation a mere 25 seconds after the earthquake struck. The report included details about the earthquake itself, information on the topography of the affected region, population heat maps, the names of nearby towns and counties, a history of earthquakes in the region, an overview of the earthquake’s epicenter, and local weather reports.

Overall, this most recent disaster response effort was a step in the right direction. However, further work is needed before we can be satisfied with China’s earthquake response system. First, we must improve rapid response times and rescue efforts to minimize casualties. Second, we must strengthen our earthquake monitoring systems and remain on guard against secondary incidents. Third, we must work to better understand the needs of disaster victims, providing psychological assistance and mental health rehabilitation where necessary.

Once the immediate danger of an earthquake has passed, reconstruction work begins. As this work requires meticulous planning, we must learn from our efforts in the aftermath of the Wenchuan and Yushu earthquakes, as well as other major disasters. We must ensure that architectural and engineering projects meet strict construction standards and are capable of withstanding earthquakes, especially in rural areas.

Finally, we must quickly establish a comprehensive earthquake insurance system — operated either by the private sector or through state subsidies, as in New Zealand and Japan — and make full use of insurance in our disaster relief efforts. At the same time, we must systematize disaster-prevention drills and raise public awareness of what to do in such situations.

China sits at the juncture of two extreme seismic activity zones: the Pacific Ring of Fire and the Himalayas. This places us at an increased risk of earthquakes and other natural disasters. While it is impossible to completely prevent such disasters, greater professionalism and improved technology can help to minimize their effects. Making strides in these areas is not only possible — it is imperative.

Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: Two children are seen inside tents at a temporary settlement in Jiuzhaigou County, Sichuan province, Aug. 10, 2017. IC)