Fourteen Hours in the Sichuan Earthquake Zone

It's 5:50 a.m. on June 10. I am in front of my hotel in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. With me are two officials from the China Youth Development Foundation (CYDF) who are long time friends of P&G. Together with two P&G Security Managers we will spend the next 14 hours touring areas in Sichuan that are among those worst hit by the earthquake. P&G has partnered with CYDF for 13 years to build Hope Schools across China. We know each other well and are aligned on today's mission - how to best use P&G's support to help at least 20,000 children by building mobile and permanent schools to replace schools damaged or destroyed in the earthquake.

Late the previous night we received special government approvals to visit some of the most severely damaged areas. This was essential as access is restricted for safety reasons, to respect the families whose lives have been impacted and to allow the authorities to focus on the recovery and rebuilding.

At 6:00 a.m. sharp we set off in a three-vehicle convoy, a Land Cruiser and two hard-top Jeeps, all capable of navigating through the earthquake-ravaged areas. As we head out, we are very thankful that the weather is good since rain can make access to the mountain areas impossible.

Our schedule for the day is simple but long. We will first drive to the small town of Qingchuan, close to the earthquake epicenter, where CYDF is considering building a second mobile P&G Hope School. Then, on to the first P&G mobile Hope School which opened on May 25 in Yuquan village. This will take us 14 hours and cover 650 km (400 miles).

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road to Qingchuan

By 9:00 a.m. we reach the mountains. Everywhere there are signs of the earthquake. As we travel further into the mountains we see more and more tent cities, built on the outskirts and in the centers of every village and town. Some tents are lined up along the side of the road, which is often the only flat area in these mountains. As we weave through the mountains we pass now-cleared landslide areas, although in some places there is just enough room for one car to pass through. Along the way, we see cars and trucks crushed beneath huge boulders that tumbled down the mountainsides in the earthquake and aftershocks.


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PLA reconstruction crew

We see scores of People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers armed with shovels and picks, driving trucks and earth-moving equipment, clearing debris and rubble and starting reconstruction. The PLA swiftly led the immediate major rescue and relief work throughout the earthquake zone. They are now the backbone of the early massive recovery and reconstruction effort. Every town is a hive of activity, with building supplies filling open store fronts along the main streets. Food and water supplies look plentiful in the towns that we drive through. Many local farmers are selling their produce again in open, street-side markets.

More tent cities line the road. They look well managed; row after row of orderly tents. At one, we see a long line of people - also orderly and disciplined -- awaiting breakfast. In less than an hour, we pass at least 20 of these tent cities. The deeper we go into the mountains, the more tents we see, and more buildings marked by "宝洁 宝洁新闻 宝洁观点 ", the Chinese character for "demolition ". We often see pockets where two or three former buildings now are a pile of rubble, while the buildings on either side appear undamaged.

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Checkpoint for vehicle disinfection

Periodically, we drive through checkpoints where men in white bodysuits and facemasks spray the wheels of our vehicles with disinfectant or bleach to prevent the outbreak and spread of disease. It is a comforting but eerie feeling to see the lengths the authorities are taking to ensure the health of over 46 million people now displaced from their homes across the earthquake region.

By 10:30 a.m. we reach Qingchuan. As we drive down into the valley to the town, we see the remains of at least a dozen massive landslides that tumbled down from the surrounding mountains; and possibly a dozen more that covered the road but have now been cleared.


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The main street of Qingchuan

Qingchuan is a town of 20,000 -- built along a small river. Here, and in the villages immediately surrounding the town, 4,500 people were killed in the quake, with another 5,000 injured. As we walk down the town's main street at least 25 percent of the buildings have collapsed and many more show major cracks. More than 80% of the town's structures will have to be demolished and rebuilt. We walk passed an archway that leads to a huge pile of rubble that once was the town's middle school.


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PLA soldiers in the Qingchuan dust

Local officials tell us that up to 1,000 PLA soldiers are leading the relief work in this area, some working in the town, others building a drainage channel in a landslide dam that has created a large artificial lake about 4 km up river. The lake is constantly monitored, with the soldiers prepared to evacuate the town at any sign of more landslides or flooding.


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Guang Zhuang Village tent
camp for refugees

Qingchuan's senior government official walks us over the river via stepping stones and a bridge to the former agricultural village of Guang Zhuang. Here tents now cover the fields all along the river. In all there are about 3,000 tents serving as home to about 10,000 people who have moved across the river from the devastated town of Qingchuan. Again, the tents are laid out in a very orderly fashion, with many housing 5-6 people. Early on, before sufficient relief supplies arrived, 12 to 15 people shared one tent.

We watch construction crews who are working 24 hours a day to build prefabricated shelters, which will serve as more substantial temporary housing until permanent reconstruction can begin. This is a critical need as these shelters will better withstand the upcoming rainy season. Some tents already are being dismantled as people move into these new shelters -- which may well have to house people for 2-3 years, as the scope of reconstruction is massive.

Some tents serve as market stalls, selling food to supplement free provisions at the camp, others as barber shops, dentist's offices, etc. Early on, relief workers could provide only one bottle of water and one container of noodles per person per day. With the roads cleared enough relief supplies are now coming in.

We see 60 tents set up as a temporary hospital, mainly staffed by army doctors and medical personnel. This military tent hospital is supplemented by tents staffed with volunteer doctors who traveled from all over China to help the earthquake victims. The seriously injured have been evacuated to hospitals elsewhere so the tent hospital now houses only those with minor injuries.

Next, we reach the area being considered for a second mobile P&G Project Hope school. This would house 1,100 displaced students. After much discussion with the local government, the Project Hope officials will return to national headquarters in Beijing to assess the requests and determine how to best use their resources to help.

It is now 12:30 p.m. , and as we head back through the mountains to the first mobile P&G Hope School, we are stopped by a crane that blocks the road as it rescues a truck that has just slid off the road into one of the landslide areas.

By 3:30 p.m. , we have been driving for nearly 3 hours through the mountains and out across the central plain of Sichuan. Once we emerge from the mountains, there are no visible signs of the earthquake - a startling contrast after what we'd just seen.

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The outskirts of Yuquan village

But now, as we get closer to the first mobile P&G Hope School, signs of the earthquake reappear. More and more tents are pitched alongside small farm houses in the fields. These are different from the government aid tents we saw in the mountains. Most are simply water-proof tarpaulins draped over wooden posts. Many are pitched in the median of the road -- the only flat space not used for growing crops. As we pass through the small towns, up to a quarter of the buildings have collapsed.

Big trucks full of gravel, sand and construction materials clog the main streets of these small towns, evidence that reconstruction is in full swing. While all non-construction traffic has been stopped, we have government permits, so are allowed through.

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Mobile P&G Earthquake Relief
Hope School

At 4:00 p.m. , we drive through the gates of the "P&G Earthquake Relief Hope School" in the Yuquan village, Mianzhu County. A village of about 5,000 people, it is in the agricultural lowlands of Sichuan, about 130 kilometers from Chengdu, and was also hard hit by the earthquake. Again, our passes gain us access to now closed areas. The school is the second of the mobile schools built by Project Hope in the earthquake zone and the first sponsored by P&G. When it is fully operational, the school will house more than 1,200 students, with up to 100 teachers.

Several of our Chengdu employees attended the May 25 opening of this mobile school, together with the long-time P&G coordinator for our Hope School program, Liang Yun - and more than 800 very happy primary and middle school students.

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P&G Earthquake Relief
Hope School classroom

There are 31 mobile classrooms at the school, each with capacity for up to 45 students. This afternoon we see only a few students as classes are held early in the day, with the afternoons reserved to complete the construction. By the end of this week the school will operate on a normal full-day schedule. The head of the Mianzhu County Board of Education shows us around. Initial construction was completed in less than three days, and the school opened less than two weeks after the earthquake. Work was hastened because crews used the school's former basketball courts as the flat, concrete base for the classrooms.

Three 5th grade girls have joined our tour. They smile and joke and seem happy to be our guides. Like many people we have seen today, they are covered in mosquito bites. Most people still sleep in tents so swarms of mosquitoes that thrive in the hot, humid climate of summertime Sichuan are a major irritant.

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Original Yuquan School that will
be demolished

From the outside, the original 4-story, L-shaped school looks fine. But it is roped off and slated for demolition. Based on the massive amount of reconstruction needed in Sichuan, the headmaster thinks it could take up 3-5 years to build a permanent replacement. So he sees the already operational new mobile P&G Hope School as a real blessing to the children and the entire community in Yuquan.

By 5:30 p.m. we head back to Chengdu. We see more tents along the roadside, but also encouraging signs that people have recently moved out of the tents and back into their homes.

We arrive around 7 p.m. After all we've seen Chengdu looks remarkably normal. Over dinner the CYDF and local Project Hope staff - among the very first agencies to set up relief work -- tell us what they've been doing over the last month. They have all experienced heartbreaking sights that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

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Our hosts at the Yuquan mobile
P&G Hope School

In my 3.5 years in China, I have been immensely impressed with CYDF and their Project Hope school building program. Over the last 13 years P&G has donated over 32 million RMB ($4.5 million) to CYDF to build 134 P&G Hope Schools serving more than 100,000 children. These are part of a national network of 14,000 Hope Schools, often in the poorest and most remote parts of China. Without a doubt, my most memorable experiences in China have been opening P&G Hope Schools in these remote rural areas. I am proud that in this time of special need, P&G has donated an additional 10 million RMB ($1.4 million) to CYDF to build schools and provide support, including psychological counseling, to help children in areas ravaged by the earthquake. This is part of the 53 million RMB ($7.5 million) in cash and products P&G has donated over the past month to China aid organizations for earthquake recovery.

It is 9:30 p.m. , we finish dinner and I say goodbye to my friends from CYDF. Today my impression of CYDF and their Hope Schools program has been strengthened even further. I saw the immense compassion of people who have spent the last month bringing normality back into the shattered lives of children by helping them return to school. With the support of P&G and other companies, CYDF and Project Hope are making a lasting impact on the lives of these children. As they leave I am certain that this day will stay etched in my memory forever.

But the day is not quite over yet. Thirty minutes later, as I sit in my room on the 19th floor of the hotel in downtown Chengdu, one of the hundreds of aftershocks that still shake the region hits. It is not strong but I definitely notice it as the room around me trembles for what seems like a very long 5 seconds. It makes me think again of the many unfortunate people I saw today who are sleeping tonight in the tent cities of Sichuan.

Chris Hassall
Vice President-External Relations, Asia.