New dormitories opened this fall semester at Southwest University of Science and Technology in Mianyang, Sichuan, China, but not for the usual reasons of modernization or overcrowding. Instead, these two residential halls replace some of those destroyed last year in the Great Wenchuan Earthquake, as the Chinese refer to it.
Measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale, the earthquake struck Sichuan Province on May 12, 2008, leaving nearly 90,000 people dead or missing and 5 million homeless, mostly from three prefectures whose population totals 9.8 million. (The entire Sichuan Province has a population of 87 million.)
Of the victims, three students from Southwest University of Science and Technology (SWUST) died and a dozen or so were injured out of 25,000 students. More than 200 of the 2,000 faculty and staff were left homeless. Total estimated damage to the university was $72 million (in U.S. currency), to the nation, perhaps $500 billion.
A visiting geography professor at SWUST that spring semester, I was in my campus apartment in a four-story building containing eight units when the earthquake hit about 66 miles southwest of the university.
After rushing outside, uninjured, to safety, I saw a curtain of dust rising from collapsed buildings in a village across the nearby Fu River. Shaken and crying, I hugged a neighbor overcome with fear and uncertainty, and then walked with a colleague toward the main part of campus, joining thousands of students, plus faculty and staff, congregating in a huge athletic field. Some were only in their underwear, having been rudely awakened from their traditional afternoon naps. Many were barefoot.
We all exchanged experiences and comforted each other. (I speak a little Mandarin; most Chinese students speak some English.) Then we roamed around, in pairs or small groups, to survey the damage and check on the well-being of others. Everyone stayed outside for the night, huddling around lanterns and radios, sharing food and water--and sharing emotions from intense anxiety to a deep need for solace. Fearful of aftershocks, nobody slept.
Classes were cancelled the next day--the message communicated via megaphone by staff driving around in university vehicles--until damage assessment could be completed. (My apartment building would need only minor repairs.) For the following seven days, almost everyone lived under tarps or tents that had been set up in seemingly every available open space away from buildings. On May 19, the university president decided to close the school--two weeks earlier than had been scheduled--until reopening in late August to allow students to finish incomplete spring courses before the fall semester would begin in early September.
The grounds had to be vacated by May 22. Students whose homes were destroyed were allowed to remain on campus in makeshift shelters. A few hundred opted to do so; others stayed with friends. Without students to teach, and with relief efforts fully staffed by those who could speak the local dialects, I left on May 23, returning home to Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla.
In the days between the earthquake and my departure, 1 visited and photographed as much as I could in and around the city of Mianyang (population about 738,000), given the restrictions necessitated by the rescue efforts. …