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China's 10 Million Quake Victims Remain Victims

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Despite the best of intentions and an unprecedented financial commitment by the Chinese Government, China's 10 million-plus victims of last May's Sichuan Earthquake remain largely in massive temporary prefabricated housing complexes, in tents or under blue tarps in partially damaged homes.

Thousands of schools also collapsed when the quake struck in May, 2008. Of the more than 80,000 who perished last May, many of the dead and injured were students and teachers caught in classrooms built of adulterated cement without rebar or of stacked rocks without adequate reinforcement. While allowing for public expressions of grief and demands for compensation, recent attempts by victims' families at organizing themselves have been met with disapproval or downright hostility by Chinese officials who apparently feel their openness to receiving international aid to help rebuild schools should be a substitute for a serious public review as to why these schools were built so poorly in the first place.

Many bridges, dams and roadways also collapsed and it is here where public funds have been allocated. China's public sector recovery has in fact been impressive with legions of bright, focused local and national officials mobilizing resources. The comparison with Hurricane Katrina's recovery after 3 1/2 years is inevitable and indeed painful for an American to look at from close-up.

Ordinary Chinese citizens are being given a limited amount of funding to fend for themselves in rebuilding homes or re-establishing businesses or other economic activity. [I'm tempted to describe this as a US-style Republican Party approach to disaster relief but that would be unfair to the Chinese Government].

A trip made last week to Chengdu in Sichuan Province was eye opening. In just one quake affected county 2 hours west of the City, there are 67 school reconstruction projects well underway, with the first US-funded project due for completion in late April. This school project, a joint venture between US based Honeywell Hometown Solutions (whose parent, The Honeywell Corporation, has a major manufacturing presence in China) and Operation USA, a Los Angeles-based international aid group, has local and national government support and is using private Chinese construction companies. This should serve as a model for an approach to disaster recovery. Everyone's self-interest coalesced in fast tracking this project, unlike trying to do this in New Orleans where far less has been done over a period 5 times as long and with chaos at every level of government. Here, at least, China's centralized planning process and top down "blessings" were of great help to getting something done.

But the tragedy for millions in Sichuan Province is continuing as many are left to fend for themselves. They face a world economic crisis which has dried up outside aid funds; a competition for skilled construction labor which is driving up local costs despite massive lay-offs in manufacturing; and, an economy where food costs are up as a result of both the dislocation of local farmers and a serious drought elsewhere in China.

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