What Can Students Do about the Catastrophe in China?

May 21, 2008

The huge earthquake that ravaged China on May 12 buried thousands of schoolchildren. American students may have a special interest in acting to help young survivors in China.

The huge earthquake that ravaged the Chengdu area of northwestern China on May 12 struck with particular force at school buildings, burying thousands of students alive. Students may have a special interest in acting to help Chinese students. 

Student Reading

"JUYUAN, China—The high school students were settling in to afternoon arts and humanities when the massive quake struck. The school collapsed so rapidly—one floor 'pancaking' atop another—that there was practically no time to escape." So said a report in the New York Times about one magnet school for 7th through 9th graders in a farming and manufacturing town northwest of Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan Province.

One girl was pulled free, several other students managed to escape, but 100 bodies were pulled out and some 800 more were trapped underneath the ruins of the school.

The powerful earthquake struck at 2:28 p.m. local time in a mountainous region outside of Chengdu in western China. It had a magnitude of 8.0 and was felt 900 miles away in Beijing and in Vietnam. Homes and factories collapsed, landslides struck in the mountains, cracks tore dams in the region. Thousands were buried alive, additional thousands are missing or dead, and as many as 10 million people are in need of aid. Hospitals in Sichuan reported receiving more than 116,000 patients. More than three million homes have been destroyed. ( New York Times, 5/16 and 5/18)

The cause of the earthquake was the "continuing collision between India and Asia. India, once a giant island before crashing into the underside of Asia about 40 to 50 million years ago, continues to slide north at a geologically quick pace of two inches a year. The tectonic stresses push up the Himalaya Mountains and generate scores of earthquakes from Afghanistan to China." ( New York Times , 5/13/08)

Schools and schoolchildren were especially hard hit. Just east of the epicenter of the quake, in Beichuan county, 1,000 students and teachers were killed or missing at a collapsed six-story high school. Another 200 people, mostly children, were underneath two schools in Hanwang township. In northern Sichuan, in Quinchuan, 178 children were confirmed dead. (Associated Press report posted at www.msnbc.msn.com, 5/13/08)

Across the region tent cities have sprung up, but homeless people also try to survive under plastic sheets and makeshift shelters without access to clean water. In the city of Shifang a woman, Fan Yufen, pointed to a collapsed seven-story building, "My husband is still over there," she said. She had been taking a nap when the earthquake struck, but her husband had run down the stairs. "On the second day, we could still hear people crying for help," she said. "Now they've stopped." ( New York Times , 5/17)

So many school buildings collapsed that some people have begun to raise questions about the quality of their construction. A structural engineer and concrete specialist in Chengdu, Dai Jun, said, "Those buildings weren't made for that powerful of an earthquake. Some don't even meet basic specifications." (AP) But Andrew Smeall, an assistant with the Asia Society's U.S.-China Center in New York, said that "fairly rigorous building codes have been in place. The problem is implementation of the codes." ( Christian Science Monitor, www.csmonitor.com, 5/14/08)

The New York Times reported that the missing children in many places seemed to symbolize "the earthquakes indiscriminate cruelty. But the cruelty, in the eyes of their parents, was also man-made." Near Juyuan, at the Xinjian Primary School, parents said that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had been told 20 students were dead.

"But enraged parents interviewed at the morgue say local officials lied to the prime minister to hide the true toll at Xinjian, which they estimate at more than 400 dead children. Several parents blamed local officials for a slow initial rescue response and questioned the structural safety of the school building.  At the morgue on Wednesday, parents walked through rooms lined with bodies on the floor, lifting sheets in the unwanted search to identify a lost child." (Jim Yardley, "Tiny Bodies in a Morgue and Unspeakable Grief in China," New York Times, 5/15/08)

The Times also reported, "The central government, which said it was spending $120 million in rescue efforts, has mobilized 130,000 soldiers, medics and security forces for disaster relief. 'We welcome funds and supplies,' Wang Zhenyao, the Civil Affairs Ministry's top disaster relief official, said, according to the Associated Press." (5/14/08)

Nearby, in Myanmar, which was recently devastated by a cyclone, military leaders have obstructed attempts by other countries to provide aid. But the Chinese government has welcomed foreign assistance, reversing its previous policies. "Search-and-rescue teams from Russia, South Korea, Japan and Singapore have been arriving with sniffer dogs, high-tech listening devices and hydraulic spreaders," the Times reported. "The United States agreed to provide Chinese authorities with satellite images of the earthquake zone and two planeloads of relief supplies." (5/17/08)

What can you do to help? As always in such disaster situations, money given to humanitarian organizations helps buy needed supplies, medicine, and food. Students can collect contributions from family and friends as well as organize collective fundraising activities.

The humanitarian organizations at work in China include:

UNICEF: www.unicefusa.org. Unicef says that is "rushing medical supplies, tents, and clear water to children affected by the powerful earthquake in China."

AmeriCares: www.americares.org. AmeriCares says that staff members will arrive at the earthquake scene during the week of 5/18 "to deliver critical medicines and medical supplies."

World Vision: www.worldvision.org. World Vision says that its $100 Family Survival Kit provides such essentials as emergency food, safe water, blankets, temporary shelter and cooking utensils.

American Red Cross: www.redcross.org. The Red Cross has pre-positioned supplies in nearby countries and is rushing aid to China.


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading and how might they be answered?

2. What additional ideas do students have to help the desperate people of China?



This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org