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    Gansu Earthquake: With Many Displaced, Efforts Shift to Helping Survivors

    Braving frigid temperatures, remote terrain, and the possibility of aftershocks, rescuers have pulled dozens of survivors to safety from affected regions in China’s northwestern Gansu and Qinghai provinces.
    Dec 20, 2023#disasters

    A day after a powerful earthquake struck northwest China’s Gansu province, the death toll has climbed to at least 131, while over 700 have been injured. Authorities stated Wednesday that rescue teams in the affected region will now shift their focus from search and recovery to resettling survivors. 

    Over the last 24 hours, braving the extreme cold, remote terrain, and the possibility of aftershocks, rescuers pulled to safety dozens of survivors from affected regions in Gansu and the neighboring Qinghai province. 

    In Gansu alone, nearly 15,000 homes have been reported as collapsed, with over 200,000 more suffering damage, leaving thousands of families in dire need of shelter and support. Authorities also stated that after multiple emergency repairs, electricity has been fully restored across the quake zone, while all highways and rural roads have also been cleared. 

    Meanwhile, in Qinghai, where 18 were killed and almost 200 injured, the impact of the earthquake, which had a magnitude of 6.2, was characterized by a phenomenon known as sand boils — a seismic activity-triggered movement of sand and water to the surface — which further complicated rescue efforts. 

    Addressing a press conference on Wednesday, Gansu authorities said that rescue operations in the province had largely concluded by 3 p.m. Tuesday, with the focus now shifting to treating the wounded and resettling those affected by the earthquake. 

    He Xingshen is part of the Lanzhou Mountain River Volunteer Rescue Team, which reached Dahejia Town — one of the hardest-hit areas — Tuesday. He told Sixth Tone that their primary task on Wednesday was to provide shelter for the villagers, including setting up tents and distributing essential supplies. 

    “Now we’re afraid that another earthquake may occur. All the affected residents from villages and towns are being accommodated in these tents,” he said, adding that most villagers have been settled at various public squares in Dahejia Town. 

    Recalling his arrival at one affected site, He said: “When we entered the village, we saw serious collapse and damage, as this is a rural area with self-built houses.” The extensive destruction severely hampered rescue efforts, which largely depended on the capabilities of the fire department and the army.

    “The most pressing issue now is that some houses have completely collapsed, potentially burying people deep underneath. It means that, even if we detect vital signs, the prolonged time under the debris often results in victims dying en route to the hospital,” he explained.

    The rescuer also emphasized that plummeting temperatures at night have compounded the challenges, causing delays in the already strenuous rescue operations. The Central Meteorological Observatory of Lanzhou forecasted that in the next 10 days, the affected region will experience lows ranging from minus 14 to minus 10 degrees Celsius, with highs not exceeding 5 degrees Celsius.

    While a range of supplies, from those provided by national authorities to donations from various organizations, have reached the quake-affected areas, He noted a specific shortfall in Dahejia Town. The town, he said, is in urgent need of winter clothing for children under 10, as most supplies are in adult sizes.

    “This village is home to an ethnic minority community with many left-behind children and elderly people,” He said, adding that the youngest child he has encountered in the relief efforts is just two months old.

    While the focus in Gansu has shifted to relief and resettlement, rescue efforts in the neighboring Qinghai province are facing more complex challenges. 

    In Jintian Village, the quake damaged a water channel, leading to a destructive mudslide that washed down silt, destroyed 36 homes, and left 13 villagers missing, according to a report in the state-owned People’s Daily. 

    Yang Zhongxiao, a local villager, had fled from his wooden house but witnessed the mudslide sweeping over the area just 20 minutes later. “It sounded like firecrackers when trees were being snapped by the mudslide,” Yang told the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

    This devastation was also captured in live images showing large swaths of the village buried in brown mud, with only the rooftops of some houses visible. Several large excavators were brought in to clear away the mud and debris. 

    State broadcaster CCTV reported that the substantial soft silt at the site complicated rescue operations. To tackle these difficulties, rescuers employed advanced equipment like radar and drones for geological investigations, followed by large-scale machinery such as excavators and bulldozers to quickly clear the silt.

    According to local media reports, the silt, which buried many houses, was near freezing temperatures due to the cold weather conditions, forcing rescuers to improvise by using stones and firewood to create makeshift pathways through the silt during rescue efforts.

    Han Yanyan, a senior engineer at the China Earthquake Network Center, explained that the silt was actually the localized boiling of sand, a phenomenon often triggered by massive earthquakes.

    Han said: “Due to the vibration of the earth’s crust, water-bearing sands deep underground undergo strong liquefaction. This results in the sand layers being forced up through specific channels to the surface, creating what is known as sand boils.” 

    Editor: Apurva.  

    (Header image: Rescue workers search for survivors at Caotan Village in Haidong, Qinghai province, Dec. 19, 2023. Zhang Hongxiang/Xinhua)