At 14:28 on May 12, 2008, an earthquake registering 8.0 on the Richter scale pounded southwest China’s Sichuan Province. With its epicenter located in Wenchuan County, Aba Prefecture, the quake rocked office workers in Shanghai, approximately 1,000 miles away; was felt by more than 10 provinces; and affected many provinces and cities, including Sichuan, Gansu, Shaanxi, Chongqing, Yunnan, Guizhou, and Hubei. The quake caused great casualties and inflicted severe damage to cities and towns. According to the preliminary government statistics, the death toll in the Wenchuan earthquake has reached 69,127, with another 373,612 people injured and 17,918 still listed as missing. So far, 45,710,965 people have been affected in some way by the earthquake.

Prof. Zhi Wenjun
Photo Courtesy Time + Architecture

The severe destruction spread across an area of more than 38,610 square miles. The disaster caused unprecedented damage to houses and other forms of construction, to municipal utilities and roads as well as water and communication facilities. According to the official statistics, in Sichuan Province, more than 4 million houses collapsed or were seriously damaged. Some cities and towns were almost completely razed. In Gansu Province, more than 400 thousand houses collapsed or were damaged; in Shaanxi Province, the count is more than 300 thousand houses. In addition, the municipal facilities were also damaged. The total loss may reach $100 billion.

With the passage of time, the work of search and rescue, quarantine, deployment of supplies, rehousing of victims, and distribution of the wounded has been well organized and now gradually moves to restoring production and rebuilding homes. The Chinese government, which acted quickly in the crisis, welcomed relief assistance from all countries throughout the world with an open attitude, invited and arranged foreign support to disaster relief in China, and offered direct access for materials contributions and equipment to the disaster areas with flexible policies.

With the rescue work for human life in the Wenchuan earthquake coming to an end, relief work in Sichuan Province has stepped into the second phase of rescue and epidemic prevention, resettlement of victims, restoring production, and rebuilding homes. Today, more than 100,000 individual volunteers and groups such as NGOs have come from across China to help, aided by an unprecedented outpouring of money, blood, and materials. In addition, people from around the world have offered help.

Faced with people who lost their homes and are looking forward to rebuilding, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MHURD) has delivered the mandate of the State Council to the provinces that 1 million sets of transitional houses should be constructed within three months. The local governments should resettle the people in quake-stricken areas into the transitional houses before mid-August. According to current planning, the city of Shanghai will construct 80 thousand sets of transitional houses in batches for the stricken areas. In preparation, Shanghai Modern Design Group has finished the mission of designing numerous temporary housing units. The Architectural Board of Tongji University and Tongji Institute of Urban Planning and Design will voluntarily do the work of contingency planning and disaster recovery planning for regions such as Wenchuan, Beichuan, and Dujiangyan, which were severely damaged by the disaster. Chengdu Liujiakun Construction Design Firm has compiled the disaster map, collected information about transitional housing, and provided donors who want to help build Hope Schools, with detailed information on construction standards. More and more architects are voluntarily engaging themselves with these significant and practical collective works, and more individuals are joining the action.

The State Council has set up a special group for the post-disaster reconstruction and planning and is trying to complete the planning work within three months. On June 10, the State Council promulgated the Post-Disaster Recovery and Rebuilding Regulation of Wenchuan Earthquake, which provided a basis and guidance for the implementation of reconstruction planning in the stricken areas. Chengdu Municipal Planning and Administration Bureau and Dujiangyan Municipal Government published the Announcement of Collecting Post-Disaster Reconstruction and Planning Concepts of Dujiangyan City at home and abroad, a call for assistance that drew 47 design institutions and colleges as applicants. After a careful selection, 10 groups were selected to work on conceptual planning.

The great disaster of the Wenchuan earthquake has evoked serious thinking by many people, especially on the quality of public construction, such as the phenomenon that many schools collapsed in the earthquake with serious casualties inflicted. By now, the MHURD and the Sichuan Provincial Office of Education have conducted a preliminary survey and evaluation. In addition to the fact that the earthquake intensity went far beyond the state seismic fortification requirements in these regions, apparently the collapsed school buildings represented jerry-built construction projects.

The earthquake exposed extensive, fatal problems that exist in architectural design and construction in China. Recently, the Ministry of Education associated with the MHURD has started the disposition of a countrywide examination on the safety of school buildings against earthquakes. The Wenchuan earthquake should arouse deep reflection in the construction industry. All the experience after this disaster should be carefully summed up toward raising the quality of architectural designs, completing successful construction of structures, creating projects that are effective against future earthquakes, planning appropriate disaster relief and municipal planning and site selection.

Despite some positive benefits that occurred, including a unified response by government and strong efforts by the Chinese nation, real questions remain. Should the destroyed cities be rebuilt? Who should move? Planning becomes paramount as the most populous nation prepares to address this natural disaster in light of a citizenry already in transition from farm to city.

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