Deadly Sichuan earthquake sparks fresh fears over building quality

Wreckage of damaged houses lie by the side of a street in Longmen township, one of the seriously-damaged towns in disaster-hit Yaan, southwest China's Sichuan province. Photo: AFP

Massive damage to buildings near the epicentre of the 7 magnitude earthquake that struck Sichuan on Saturday has led to renewed public concerns about building quality.

Ma Jun, the government head in Baoxing county, northwest of the epicentre, told Xinhua on Sunday that nearly all the buildings in the county were damaged, including buildings such as schools and hospitals rebuilt after the 8 magnitude quake in 2008.

Twenty-six county residents were killed by Saturday's quake and more than 2,500 injured, mostly by collapsed buildings.

Ma's remarks put the government of Hainan province firmly in the spotlight. The province had supported reconstruction in Baoxing with 150 million yuan (HK$186.5 million) from Hainan's taxpayers.

The projects included a 51 million yuan hospital and an equally expensive high school. All construction work was completed in 2011.

Even though Baoxing's county government was focused on quake rescue and relief, Hainan urged it to clarify Ma's remarks, according to Hainan's official news website. Huang Zongpin, deputy director of the county's People's Congress standing committee, was quoted by the website as saying that none of the buildings built by Hainan had collapsed.

The schools, hospital and other public buildings were still standing, he said, without elaborating on the degree of damage.

But building quality is a concern for residents of the county. Baoxing resident Chen Xuanpeng told The Beijing News that his house reinforced by the government after the 2008 earthquake, was again severely damaged, with cracks in its walls large enough to insert a fist.

The quality of buildings in the quake zone quickly gripped national attention. The China Youth Daily, affiliated with the Communist Youth League, ran an editorial yesterday questioning the massive damage in Baoxing. The reconstruction campaign had promised to make buildings strong enough to withstand quakes up to a magnitude of 8, but their actual performance was rather disappointing, the editorial said.

An analysis of satellite remote sensing data by the Chinese Academy of Sciences showed that only about 60 per cent of the houses in Baoxing were damaged, most of them older buildings. Relatively new buildings, such as schools and hospitals, remained structurally complete.

Professor Long Enshen, deputy director of the Institute for Disaster Management and Reconstruction, jointly formed by Sichuan University and Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said that the reconstruction in Sichuan after the 2008 earthquake could have resulted in some building quality problems.

"We are preparing for a trip into the quake zone to gather the first-hand information about the problems of the reconstruction projects," he said yesterday.

A 7 magnitude quake was strong enough to damage many buildings, especially in an impoverished area. But the death toll from Saturday's quake, about 200 by yesterday, was relatively low compared to the almost 90,000 deaths in 2008, partly due to improved building quality in the region, Long said.

"A damaged building is fundamentally different from a collapsed building," he said. "Without the reconstruction project, more people would probably have died."

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