COMMENTS: The Earth Moves in Sichuan Province

Natural disaster dominated the day's news. After Cyclone Nargis last week in Myanmar and a weekend's devastation in Tornado Alley, the Richter 7.9 earthquake in China's Sichuan Province was the Story of the Day. All three newscasts led off from Beijing, where early estimates had the death toll at 10,000. By coincidence, National Public Radio had decided to assign All Things Considered to a week of reporting from China's heartland. The city that happened to be chosen was Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. Anchors Melissa Block and Robert Siegel were there when the mid-afternoon earthquake happened. Block described the scene for ABC, Siegel for NBC.

NPR's Siegel was understated about being rocked on the 27th floor of his hotel. He called it "very unsettling," leaving "very jangled nerves." His colleague Block (no link) traveled to the town of Dujiangyan where a three-story school had collapsed on top of as many as 1,000 teenage students: "I just walked by the bodies of at least a dozen children that were wrapped in shrouds laid out on the ground," she recounted, "victim upon victim, laid out on the ground, with their families, who have found their children, in unstoppable grief."

From Beijing, NBC's Mark Mullen listed damage including cut off telephones and electricity and blocked roads and rails. He called the response of the news media "very open…quickly televising pictures." Prime Minister Wen Jiabao "responded unusually fast," judged ABC's Neal Karlinsky, with 20,000 soldiers dispatched to the province by nightfall "setting up portable aid centers in tents." CBS had Celia Hatton on the job, who only last week was in Bangkok trying to get access to Myanmar to report on the cyclone. She relayed reports that a chemical plant making ammonia had ruptured, requiring 60,000 people to escape toxic fumes.

ABC's New York based Ned Potter (no link) pointed out that most modern urban construction in China adheres to building codes that allow them to sway instead of collapsing during an earthquake. He expected most of the damage to be in the older brick and stone structures in rural areas. On NBC, NPR's Siegel supported that supposition: "In Chengdu, rather a large city, the losses, I gather, are rather slight. Most of the city is undamaged." As ABC's Karlinsky put it: "The hardest hit areas remain out of reach, cut off by roads blocked by tons of debris."


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