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Local group survives China earthquake, shifts gears

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By MEGAN JAMES

CHENGDU, CHINA — Meg Young had just handed her passport and bankcard to a teller on the second floor of the China Construction Bank in Chengdu a week ago Monday when the building began to shake.

“I made eye contact with the teller and we both started running,” she wrote in an e-mail from China late last week.

Young, the teller and everyone else in the room dashed to a freestanding, stone spiral staircase, which swayed under their feet as they hurried to escape, pieces of the building dropping down around them.

“Once (we) got outside we ran toward the parking lot, where cars were rolling and bouncing as the earth continued to shake,” she wrote. “It shook for two minutes and 58 seconds.”

Young, who has been working in China with Ecologia, a Whiting-based sustainable development organization, since graduating from Middlebury College a year ago, was about 50 miles southeast of the earthquake’s epicenter in Sichuan Province.

With a magnitude of 7.9, the earthquake tore through the south-central region of China around 2:25 p.m. on Monday, May 12, killing more than 40,000 people and injuring many more.

Though the destruction in Chengdu was relatively mild, the mountainous region to the west, in which Ecologia has been working to establish micro-financing programs, was one of the hardest hit.

“The sad thing is that this hit in an area where people are still locked into poverty,” said Ecologia director Randy Kritkausky.

Since last July Ecologia has partnered with a local poverty alleviation center and rabbit-raising company to develop a micro-finance program for villages in the region. In addition to raising rabbits for meat, the Rabbit King and Queen — as the organization’s founders are known in the area — aim to cultivate a cottage industry with products made from the rabbits’ fur.

All was nearly lost when the earthquake hit.

Ecologia’s project director in Chengdu, Du Heng, reported last Friday that the rabbit farms were badly damaged, but luckily none of their farmers were killed. Those evacuated from destroyed houses are still in need of clean water, medicine and food, he wrote.

“The problem with helping people in poverty is that a natural disaster can negate everything that’s been done to lift them out of poverty,” Kritkausky said. “It’s going to be actually months and years until the region recovers.”

With that knowledge, Ecologia is shifting gears.

“Our priority is not to give emergency relief,” Kritkausky said. “What we’re trying to do is plan a program that will deal with the realities when all of the relief workers go home, and the media stop paying attention, and these people are stuck with broken houses and broken roads.”

Taking advantage of its on-the-ground network of local organizations and leaders, Ecologia now aims to encourage villagers to engage in reconstruction of their infrastructure, focusing on earthquake-resistant and environmentally friendly construction.

Central to this new project will be the creation of community funds, to which reconstruction and repair loans will be repaid, ensuring the community can continue to promote environmentally and socially sustainable development in the future. 

“We have project partners with a nuanced understanding of rural Sichuan Province,” Young wrote. “We also have an international staff of organizers and collaborators working to synthesize international efforts into a concentrated local response.”

To find out more about Ecologia’s effort, or to donate money or supplies, visit www.virtualfoundation.org/proposals/chrkmicro2.cgi.

After the earthquake hit, Young waited for two hours outside the crumbled bank to get her passport back. Then she and her colleague, another Middlebury graduate, Kate Leyland, started a three-hour journey on foot to their apartment at the other end of the city.

Finding their sixth-floor apartment was still unsafe, they grabbed emergency kits they had prepared upon arriving in China and headed back out into the crowded streets. They slept that night on a nearby running track.

“The field became a city of tents and tarps, while people anxiously walked the track through the night. This part felt a little like Relay for Life,” wrote Young, who during her first year at Middlebury launched the all-night cancer research fund-raiser. “Gathered on a track, staying awake through the night, communities of tents set up on the field, kids playing, adults crying... I don’t think I ever expected to be relaying for my own life, though.”

A friend of Young’s, who traveled to the epicenter to help victims, reported he was disappointed with the government’s response to the most devastated areas.

“Large groups of soldiers would just wait around until they were told to do something rather than help desperate families dig through rubble,” he told her. “By the time they started digging it was more of a clean-up effort than a search and rescue.”

Another friend, who went to take photographs of the destruction, reported the smell of dead bodies in the air. Voices drifted from piles of rubble, but they were unable to reach the people buried there.

Early this week, aftershocks as powerful as 6.0 were still regularly rocking the region.

“I find myself staring at the cracks in my walls and wondering whether they were there before the earthquake,” Young wrote. “We live in the sixth story of a building, so emergency bags still sit by the front entrance in case we need to make a quick exit.”

Young said that while nothing could have prepared her for a 7.9 earthquake, living in China for the last 10 months has thrown the tragedy into perspective.  

“I moved to China with only a handful of words under my belt, then experienced China (and our project) being rattled by snowstorms, local elections, Tibetan riots, and now an earthquake,” she wrote. “I’m pretty sure the locusts are next.”

Young saw a renewed spirit in many of the Chinese people around her, as well. At a vigil for the dead, survivors were loud and raucous and shouting “China! Fight on!”

She continued:

“The energy was incredible. People poured in from the streets to join marching lines and tightening circles, where they yelled and chanted in turn. Under the giant white statue of the late Chairman Mao, a Red Cross vest had been stuck onto the end of a pole and was being waved like a flag. Below it, a team had set up a tent collecting donations of water and clothing. I was interviewed by a Chinese reporter who said “I’ll bet this isn’t what you had expected a vigil would be like.” He was right.

Young has hope for the villages in Sichuan province.

“Optimism comes with a sense of possibility and being able to do something,” she wrote. “It’s easier to feel optimistic when I’ve stopped worrying about the roof over my own head crumbling and have started worrying about getting the supplies out so someone else can rebuild their own roof.”

Editor’s note: Readers can follow the story at Meg Young’s blog at www.meg-in-china.blogspot.com.

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