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Notes from the epicenter of the Ya'an earthquake

China, April 24, 2013

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  • A woman stands in front of a home destroyed in Longmen township. Nearly 200 were killed and more than 14,000 injured in the 7.0 earthquake last Saturday. Photo: Liu Liangchuan/Mercy Corps
  • The Mercy Corps and CFPA joint assessment team's supplies. Photo: Liu Liangchuan/Mercy Corps
  • Mobile phone charging stations are set up in downtown Lushan for those displaced in tents without electricity. Photo: Liu Liangchuan/Mercy Corps
  • The Chinese government is supplying food and water, but it is a challenge to get supplies to many of the hardest-hit rural villages. Photo: Liu Liangchuan/Mercy Corps
  • A landslide blocked the single mountain road to remote Shuangshi township for days after the earthquake. Photo: Liu Liangchuan/Mercy Corps
  • Even if their homes were not damaged, people are choosing to sleep outside in makeshift shelters, fearing collapse during the frequent aftershocks. Photo: Liu Liangchuan/Mercy Corps
  • Mothers are especially struggling to feed and care for their infants without formula, diapers and other supplies. Photo: Liu Liangchuan/Mercy Corps

Earlier this week, I accompanied our local partner, the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA) to the epicenter of the earthquake's impact for a joint needs assessment. The purpose was to get first-hand information to decide what emergency relief we should provide.

The 7.0 earthquake struck Ya'an prefecture in Sichuan on Saturday, killing nearly 200 people and injuring more than 14,000. Most damage was sustained in Lushan, Tianquan and Baoxing counties. Read Saturday's initial update ▸

The mission began with preparing equipment for our team, including: tent to accommodate the three of us; communication tools including satellite and mobile phones, walkie talkies and back-up batteries; camera with GPS; waterproof clothes with identifiable logos (the rain was relentless at first); lights; helmets; sleeping bags and waterproof bedding; food containers and high-energy packaged food.

The idea is: "Take care of yourself, so you can better fulfill your mission."

Two million people affected

We arrived in the hardest-hit Lushan county within 24 hours of the initial quake. Even when their homes had not been completely destroyed, people were choosing to live outside to reduce the risks during the frequent aftershocks.

In downtown Lushan, both the stadium and hospital agreed to temporarily shelter local residents and people from nearby rural areas. The government has provided tents and two bottles of water per day, but there are few functioning bathrooms and no place to bathe for most people, so sanitation is a concern. The government is also providing food (instant noodles), but specific food and supplies for infants are limited.

Some basic services were reinstated two days after the earthquake, such as mobile phone service, recharging stations for those lacking electricity in tents, traffic lights and public information broadcasts.

It took another few days to get to rural villages because landslides and heavy rains damaged many roads and bridges into the mountains. Although the government has been trying to deliver food and medicines by helicopter, aid has not reached every far-flung community.

In Wuxing, a village of 3,000 in Longmen township, houses — many made from wood and dirt walls — were heavily damaged. Without tents, families are living outside in bamboo structures covered by plastic sheeting and tarps. They do not have bedding or cloths to keep warm at night.

The village also lacks drinking water, since original sources were destroyed. Several elderly men cried for water because of the inconvenience of walking for it. There are no toilets and very little medical care available.

Mothers are in need of safe spaces, food and supplies to care for their infants. In Shuangshi township, where 8,629 people live in the mountains, children were especially traumatized by not only the earthquake, but subsequent landslides. They are afraid to move around for fear of more falling debris.

Our response

As local needs are changing very quickly, we will need to stay connected with the Ya'an people to keep evaluating and responding as quickly and effectively as possible. My colleague, Xie Jing, is currently in neighboring Tianquen county assessing recovery needs with the CFPA team. CFPA is coordinating all their relief efforts out of our Chengu office, about 70 miles from the epicenter of the quake.

Within the first day after the disaster, they sent water trucks to the hardest-hit villages. Next, we will be distributing hygiene kits that include water containers, towels, soap, diapers and other necessities. We will then address ways to ensure there is clean water and proper sanitation in the camps for the displaced.

We'll also begin our signature Comfort for Kids program, which helps children recover and cope with the trauma of the disaster. The team who implemented the program after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake will use the same localized curriculum and materials in the affected communities.

Our longtime presence in the Sichuan province and local connections will be key to our ability to reach as many people as possible with lifesaving aid in the days and weeks ahead.

How You Can Help

Your donation to our Humanitarian Fund allows our emergency response teams to mobilize quickly and help families devastating by this disaster and others around the world. Donate today ▸