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Beichuan takes first steps to rebuild

- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2008

BEICHUAN, China (AP) — Heavy equipment began toppling the few buildings left standing in this quake-stricken town once home to 30,000 people, and workers in white protective suits sprayed disinfectant today in the silent streets amid roaming dogs and chickens.

Ten days after China's worst disaster in a generation, it appears the search for survivors — and even the dead — was giving way to the first steps toward reconstruction.

The smell of bleach in Beichuan was overpowering as workers in the white suits and black rubber boots sprayed disinfectant on buildings, trees, car wheels and the soles of shoes of people leaving the town, where thousands are still likely buried. A layer of lime — used as a disinfectant to sprinkle on bodies — covered roads and any surface where corpses were yet to be recovered.

"There are no more signs of life," said 24-year-old soldier Li Zichuan. He watched excavators demolishing what is left of the Beichuan Middle School, where residents say hundreds of students and teachers were killed.

"During the recovery operation, we dug many bodies up here, so now all that is left is to disinfect the place and then demolish it."

The bottom two floors of the five-story school collapsed in the quake, leaving a squat, leaning wreck.

Rescuing trapped survivors was the first priority of the massive military-led response to the May 12 quake, and teams have pulled 33,434 people from the rubble alive, officials say.

Now, those efforts have come to a virtual standstill. No rescues have been reported since yesterday.

The government said the toll of dead and missing jumped to more than 80,000. The confirmed death toll rose to 51,151, up almost 10,000 from the day before. Tents are needed most in the disaster zone where the homeless number 5 million, the government said.

State television has sharply reduced live coverage from the disaster zone in Sichuan province. The clip of Premier Wen Jiabao declaring that the search for survivors would continue "as long as there's a glimmer of hope" — played endlessly in the first week — has also dropped from broadcasts.

Instead, today, Wen was shown delivering a different message on a brief visit to villages near Beichuan. "The motherland has not forgotten them. We have not forgotten them," Wen said of the dead, standing with a group of refugees. He urged the survivors to "turn grief into strength" and build a new hometown as an act of consolation.

In one quake-hit area, work had already turned to reconstruction. Rescue teams departed Dujiangyan, where workers were burying bodies and clearing rubble from collapsed buildings, said The Beijing Times, a state-run newspaper.

The streets of Beichuan — once crawling with military convoys, emergency workers, fleeing villagers and volunteers — were nearly deserted today. Dogs and chickens roamed the area, which was silent except for the occasional distant roar of a car engine.

"The bodies of dead victims will decompose and there could be an epidemic outbreak, so our job right now is to prevent that," said Ma Changjia, a volunteer from the southern city of Shenzhen who had come to help with the cleanup.

As the afternoon sun grew stronger, exhausted workers sat under trees, some with their heads slumped between their knees. Plastic canisters and basins of disinfectant lined the sidewalk.

Health experts say corpses pose little direct threat of communicable diseases or contamination, although the misconception that they do is widespread.

"People are quite traumatized after an event like this and they know that there are bodies underneath the rubble," said Paul Garwood, spokesman for the World Health Organization in Geneva. "So the disinfection measures provide reassurance and support."

Some 400,000 tents have been delivered to quake victims, and thousands of prefabricated huts have been erected. Still, the need for more was urgent.

"We need more than 3.3 million tents," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters today, renewing an international appeal.

To reinforce the point, President Hu Jintao visited two tent manufacturing companies, where he was shown on state TV urging workers to boost production to help their countrymen.

Also today, the government warned of the risk of secondary disasters from blocked streams, earthquake-loosened soil, mudslides and the upcoming rainy season.

Debris from the earthquake had created blocked rivers and streams, creating 34 "barrier lakes" that could become unstable.

"The water level in some lakes is high and rising," he said. "If there's a break, it will cause severe damage," Yun Xiaosu, vice minister of land and resources, told reporters in Beijing. Yun said that people at risk had been evacuated.

The Olympic torch resumed its relay through China following a three-day national mourning period for quake victims.

Hu chaired a meeting on the quake today by China's highest governing body, where leaders vowed to continue the rescue effort "to the last village," according to a statement.

But in Beichuan, gone is the constant whine of sirens, the legion of shovel-toting soldiers and orange-suited rescue workers who rushed from one mountain of debris to the next looking for survivors in the days immediately after the tremor.

The town now sits abandoned. Excavators and cranes have started to raze buildings. Aside from the workers disinfecting the ruins, a handful of displaced residents were allowed in to scrounge through rubble for their belongings. They left struggling with suitcases and bags filled with clothes and other personal items dug out from what used to be their homes.

Officials say they plan to rebuild Beichuan in a new area. Provincial official Hou Xiongfei said no decision had yet been made on the location.

Many who returned to Beichuan for the first time since the quake stood in awe at the destruction.

"Look at that, just look at that," one man said to friend as they stood on an overlook, surveying the surreal skyline of crooked buildings and wiped out roads.

Associated Press writers Elaine Kurtenbach in Shanghai, China, and Maria Cheng in London contributed to the report.