Photo Credit: Red Cross Society of China

By Maude Froberg, IFRC

Slowly but surely, everyday life is returning for people affected by a powerful magnitude 7 earthquake that struck China’s central Sichuan Province on 8 August. Cleaning up the debris is one challenge, while coming to terms with the loss of loved ones is another painful experience for many. Tragically, 25 people are now confirmed dead. More than 520 people are injured and over 176,000 have been affected.

While the dust settles amid the rubble, seismologists and emergency responders are looking back at a defining week.  Life-saving differences are starting to emerge compared with the 2008 magnitude 7.9 quake in Wenchuan, that left more than 80,000 people dead.

“The Jiuzhaigou tremor hit at night, disrupting communications lines and electricity, and people were naturally shocked and scared,” says Gwendolyn Pang, Head of the IFRC Country Cluster Support Team in Beijing. “The epicentre was close to the nature reserve, a sparsely populated area. Given other circumstances, the impact could have been worse.”

“We saw a very well-coordinate response from the government side. The evacuation of over 30,000 tourists and thousands of local people out of harm’s way was done in a timely and disciplined manner,” she adds. “Airlifting by helicopters was performed to a greater extent than in the Wenchuan earthquake.”

The Red Cross Society of China ensured that relief supplies were mobilised, while quickly deploying relief teams to assist in the response.

“This is the result of the scaling-up of training and development of rapid emergency teams in the wake of the Wenchuan earthquake. It’s a planned improvement with the support of the IFRC,” says Gwendolyn Pang.

Another crucial factor was the early warnings through broadcasting and mobile phone applications given to people well before the tremor struck.

According to Science and Technology Daily, people as far as 200 kilometres south of Jiuzhaigou, were given a 40-second warning of the impending danger, while people 95km from the epicentre in Longnan, Gansu province, received 19 vital seconds to prepare and rush to safety.

The early-warning system recognises the fast moving, but mostly harmless ‘P-waves’ created at the start of an earthquake. In its path, far more dangerous ‘S-waves’ follow.

“This technology may change the way we respond to earthquakes. It deserves to be studied closer,” says Gwendolyn Pang. “Yet early warning must go hand in hand with early action. People need to know what to do to protect themselves in times of emergencies.”

Looking ahead, the China Earthquake Administration plans to build 15,000 monitoring stations across the country by 2020, particularly in key areas such as Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces. So far, there has been about 2 billion yuan (US$300 million) invested in the early warning and quick intensity reporting program.