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Transport Bottlenecks Hamper Earthquake Rescue Effort

Apr 22, 2012

By Zhang Xiaohui (张晓晖)
Economic Observer Online
Translated by Zhu Na
Original article: [Chinese]

I've been on the road for two days now and I'm writing this just after midnight on Sunday night, which means that about 40 hours have passed since the Lushan Earthquake struck.

As someone who experienced the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, I want to talk a bit about my experience of this quake.

The first thing is the clogged roads, I've always thought that in the whole world, only Beijing could get traffic jams like this. I never thought that the road from Ya'an (雅安) to Lushan (芦山) could also experience the same kind of gridlock.

Lushan county didn't have much traffic capacity to begin with, it's all mountain roads and hills. The road is a branch that comes off the traditional route connecting Lhasa and Chengdu, it's only a narrow highway with a single lane in each direction and plenty of bends and curves. Two large trucks would be enough to block the road, so imagine what happened when so many cars rushed to the area.

The situation is made worse by the number of "disaster gawkers" (观灾者) who like to refer to themselves as "volunteers" (志愿者), despite the fact that they'll often do more harm than good and leave rubbish behind when they move on.

The Sichuan Transportation Bureau (四川交通局) has blamed private vehicles for clogging the roads, in fact we've seen that it has more to do with large trucks and rescue vehicles. In addition, due to the earthquake occuring in a mountainous area, the PLA's air rescue capabilities are limited.

As no-one expected Lushan to be hit by a quake, no emergency transportation contingency plans were ever put in place. The blind zeal of many volunteers who consider themselves better qualified to offer assistance than the army or the government - for example a well-known philanthropist surnamed Chen - also complicate the situation. Still, the main cause of the transport bottleneck in Lushan county is that the region's transport capacity is limited.

Du Yuan (杜远), another reporter from Economic Observer, and I started out from Chongqing at 11.30am on Saturday morning. As we knew the highway linking Ya'an to the provincial capital of Chengdu had been closed, we chose to take a route through Zigong (自贡), Rong county (荣县), Leshan (乐山), Jiajiang (夹江县) and Hongya (洪雅县) county before finally arrived in Ya'an. The whole trip took eight hours.

After we arrived in Ya'an, we hurriedly applied for a vehicle permit from the local government and quickly set off for Lushan county, only to get stuck on the road - unable to move at all.

Jia Huajie (贾华杰), another reporter with the Economic Observer's Chongqing bureau, who was travelling in another convoy, decided to get out and walk to Lushan county. I dropped off Chen Yong (陈勇), a reporter with the EO's nation section, in Yingjing. The intrepid reporter later got a lift from the military police and headed towards the disaster zone.

I stayed with the car on my own stuck in the long queue of vehicles. Unfortunately, the right rear tyre got a puncture, a soldier from the military police offered to help and together we switched it out for the spare.

In this way we divided up the work, Du Yuan stayed in Ya'an, Jia Huajie went to Lushan county, Chen Yong got a ride to Baoxing county (宝兴县) and I would go to Tianquan county (天全县) to find out what the situation was like there, as it hadn't received much attention from the press.

I've never spent so much time at the wheel in a single day. I nodded off and while I rested, Chen Yong was able to hitch a ride with the military police in the direction of Baoxing county. When I woke up, I found I was still stuck in the traffic somewhere between Yingjing (荥经县) and Lushan.

The Sichuan Transportation Bureau has said everyone, including the military, needs to listen to the instructions of the transportation bureau at the scene of a disaster.

This is indeed the case, but it's the fact that there are too many rescue vehicles and goods, far in excess of what the road linking Ya'an to Lushan can handle, that has caused the current gridlock.


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