Anniversary Sirens for the Great Sichuan Earthquake

I woke up this morning to an air raid siren and a woman’s voice issuing a countdown. Groggy and confused, I wondered if we were under attack. I looked out the window and saw cars driving down my busy intersection and figured that it must be a practice signal, like they do with the Amber Alert in the States.

However, the wailing siren kept returning all morning. When I looked at the date, I finally realized that it was the anniversary of the devastating Chengdu earthquake! Sadly, this also coincides with Mother’s Day. I vaguely remembered waking up confused to sirens this time last year, too.

PC: South China Morning Post

Every year, sirens go off here in Lishui in remembrance of the Great Sichuan Earthquake or Wenchuan earthquake that occurred at 2:28pm on May 12, 2008. With a magnitude of 7.9, it was the deadliest earthquake to hit China since the 1976 Tangshan earthquake (240,000 killed). It was so strong that people felt the tremors as far away as Beijing and Shanghai. Over 80,000 people died in Sichuan Province, leaving about 11 million people homeless. 374,176 people were reported injured, with 18,222 listed as missing as of July 2008. 

PC: VCG/VCG via Getty Images
Ruins from one of the most significant earthquakes in Chinese history, pictured a month before the tenth anniversary of the earthquake, Beichuan county, Mianyang, Sichuan, China, April 5, 2018

In the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, about 80% of buildings were destroyed within two minutes. Aftershocks from the earthquake caused even more devastation in the form of 200, 000 landslides and other catastrophes, comprising about 1/3 of the total death toll.

I highly recommend the film 2010 film Aftershock. It’s a powerful, gripping movie that follows one family’s experiences with the 1976 Tangshan earthquake at talks about the Chengdu earthquake at the end.

Since the earthquake, China’s implemented an early warning system that can give crucial time before another earthquake hits. Even if it’s just mere seconds, this warning system has the potential to save countless lives.

The China Earthquake Administration has so far invested about 2 billion yuan (US$300 million) on the early warning and quick intensity reporting system. Similar to those used in other quake-prone countries, like Japan, Mexico and the US, the system works by detecting the P-waves created by an earthquake. These are fast moving, but mostly harmless waves that give a warning of the slower moving, but far more dangerous S-waves that follow…China’s earthquake administration plans to have 15,000 monitoring stations across the country by 2020, particularly in key areas such as Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces.


Sarah Zheng, 10 Aug 2017, South China Morning Post

When I was in first grade in Yokota AFB, Japan I remember sitting in a room reading a book when my lamp started to shake. Thankfully, it was only minor tremors. In school every year, until my family was stationed away from Japan in 7th grade, we’d have earthquake drills where you’d have to dive underneath your desk. Once or twice a semester, a little house on wheels would pull up to my school. We’d be taken in a few people at a time and be expected to react accordingly as the house simulated an earthquake.


Destroyed buildings in the earthquake-damaged town of Beichuan, Sichuan Province, China Photo: AFP/GETTY

I can’t fathom the terror and feelings of loss the families that experienced the Great Sichuan Earthquake went through. The stories that affect me most are of the many school children who lost their lives as their schools collapsed…

This week, we’re set to practice earthquake drills in the morning at my middle school. As the foreign teacher, I don’t have much authority in the exercise other than making sure kids hunker down and eventually line up to go to a safe area outside. I can’t help thinking that ducking under desks really won’t help much my students much our whole building collapses, though. There’s not much chance we’d be affected by a quake here in Lishui – I feel like we’re more likely to be flooded in the monsoon rains or suffer heatstroke with the lack of AC in the classrooms (some parents resort to bringing ice to their kids)- although I’d like to think I’d be able to be strong for my students should something like this happen. I really hope the early warning system gives enough time to ensure no one has to go through such terrible experiences again.

Cover photo pc: AsiaNews

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