A week after the earthquake had passed there were still frequent aftershocks which rattled buildings and nerves. On the tip of everyones tongue was talk about “the big one”: the aftershock that would rival the strength of the original 8.0 magnitude quake on the 12th. While the big one hasn’t come, the government has been accurate so far in its prediction of significant aftershocks. Evidently seismologists can predict aftershocks with reasonably accuracy, although the USGS chooses not to publish their own.
Recently the world has been applauding the Chinese media for its transparency in reporting the disaster as it develops. Instead of reporting that everything is fine as they did in Tangshan in 1976 (which in terms of death toll was the deadliest earthquake in 300+ years) they’ve given domestic and foreign journalists access to disaster sites and have responsibly reported the reality of the situation in every form of media available. One method they’ve been employing has been the SMS service of China Mobile and China Telecom, the two largest mobile phone networks in mainland China. They send daily updates with relevant information, addressing whatever the concerns of the moment are. As rumors of exposed radioactive material explode, an SMS is message is sent to 50 million people, informing them that the material is safe and the situation is under control. The next day the rumor was a dam breaking. SMS quickly arrives to dispel that rumor; “engineers are relieving pressure and downstream areas are safe”. The next day it’s a chemical plant that’s spilled 80 tons of ammonia into the water supply. SMS is right on top of it. They’ve done an incredible job maintaining order by providing the information which people in these times are so desperate for – and believe me, millions of people have been waiting anxiously for these official bulletins which are deployed through the ubiquitous cellular network.
On Tuesday evening I was at home with a few friends, drinking and playing guitar. Around 10pm I get a text message from a friend warning me of an extremely powerful aftershock tonight, possible a 7.0. I dismiss the threat as I had been getting messages exactly like this all week. A few minutes later some more messages arrive with same warning, from both foreign and Chinese friends. Within 15 minutes I had gotten 20 text messages from friends and acquaintances – clearly this rumor was moving quickly. I waited for the official word from the government, but when it came it wasn’t what I expected. Instead of dispelling the rumor it confirmed it: there would be a massive aftershock within the next 48 hours. Supporting information or instructions were noticeably absent. Shortly after putting my phone down, before I could report the news to those next to me, the earth 7 stories below me rumbled and the building swayed. Time to leave.
We put on our shoes and planned to go to Saschas house in San Sheng Xiang, a rural community 25 minutes outside Chengdu. Secluded from the panic of the city, slightly farther from the fault line, and sleeping in a small 2-bedroom house. Stepping into the street the air is warm, the sky is dark, and the street is filled with a bustle of people and tents. A lot of the tents are makeshift shelters, hastily constructed pipe frames covered by sheets of red white and blue striped plastic. Everyone had gotten the warning and had left all of the buildings. The roads were filled with cars in total gridlock, stationary but with horns intermittently blaring. I hadn’t ever seen the street this full of people in such a state of noisy inactivity. Here’s a video:
It didn’t seem too likely that we’d find a taxi since there were almost none on the road – they’d all returned home to pick up their families. After a long search we found one and arrived at San Sheng Xiang to find Tenzin and Aliyah sitting around a table outside with a bottle of bourbon. We played cards and told them about what it was like escaping Chengdu and the panicked state of the city. We decided to sleep inside the house except for Tenzin and Aliyah who dragged a mattress outside and draped a mosquito net over a frame, completing their driveway shelter. Our rural campout ended a day later when the large aftershock never came and we slowly returned back to our homes in Chengdu. Walking on the empty road back to the city surrounded by sunshine, green fields, and chirping birds we voiced our agreement that this episode concluding with an anti climax was a pleasant surprise.
Here’s a photo of Jiao Jiao holding our bags as we sat on the street waiting for a taxi we could coerce into stopping: