Just two years after a terrifying, 7.9-magnitude quake devastated the Sichuan province in China, another tremendous quake rumbled through nearby Qinghai province on April 13. This temblor was less deadly — more than 2,000 people died, compared to 90,000 killed in Sichuan.
This quake, though, had quickly followed two other monster earthquakes. On the scales — a 6.9 by the U.S. Geological Survey and a 7.1 by the Chinese earthquake agency — the Qinghai quake was about as strong as the one that killed around 250,000 in Haiti, but not as powerful as the 8.8-magnitude temblor that killed more than 500 in Chile.
The epicenter was in Yushu County, a mountainous region sparsely populated by ethnic Tibetan farmers and herders, most of them extremely poor. Ninety percent of the homes, made of wood, mud, and brick, simply gave way. The quake took one-third of the campus of a large vocational school. In neighboring Tibet, a reported 70 percent of the school buildings collapsed in the Yushu prefecture — classes, luckily, were not in session. Because of the altitude, above 16,000 feet, freezing temperatures, snow, and sleet are regular occurrences on April nights.
The remote nature of the region and the treacherous mountain passes slowed the recovery effort as the Chinese military attempted to deliver tents, blankets, coats, and food to those who lost their homes. The region had lost electricity and telecommunications, as four aftershocks stronger than 4.8 rumbled through. Workers raced against the clock to repair a crack in a reservoir; Buddhist monks in burgundy robes dug through the rubble to find survivors; while many outside rescue workers suffered altitude sickness. Because of the treacherous conditions, Chinese officials initially declined help from foreign rescue teams.
In the end, China agreed to accept $4 million in international aid. Although the country devoted substantial resources to the recovery, more than $100 million, reconstruction was painfully slow because of the difficulty of transporting supplies to the icy, rugged mountain region. The silver lining in this disaster is that the reconstruction efforts have brought to the region modern technologies for purifying river water and building structures that will resist the next big one.