At 2:28pm on May 12, an earthquake centered in Wenchuan, Sichuan province shook buildings as far away as Beijing. Measured as a magnitude 8.0 quake by Chinese sources – 7.9 by the US Geological Survey – it killed more than 40,000 people, injured more than 247,000 and left over 32,000 missing. An estimated 5.3 million buildings were also destroyed.
The government responded quickly. Rescue workers were reportedly dispatched to the region within 14 minutes after the quake occured, but were delayed by severed rail and road links. As the extent of the damage became clear, occasional state media reports gave way to 24-hour coverage. Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao dominated headlines as they oversaw the rescue efforts.
With hundreds of aftershocks, including four above magnitude 6, concern shifted to the area’s dams. The Three Gorges Dam, located 660 kilometers east of Chengdu, was unharmed, but reports indicated damage to smaller dams nearer the epicenter. Residents and rescuers were evacuated in response to fears that a river blocked by mudslides would burst its banks in Beichuan, Sichuan.
Rescue efforts have been hindered by poor weather. At least 150 workers were buried by landslides over three days as they repaired roads. While initially refusing foreign assistance, China eventually allowed experts from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Singapore to travel to Sichuan.
By May 20, donations for quake relief had reached more than US$2 billion, with most coming from within China. After criticism that the Olympic torch relay had continued without interruption, officials said it would be scaled back.
Exactly a week after the earthquake struck, China came to a halt for three minutes, marked by the sounding of horns and sirens. During a three-day mourning period, theaters and KTV parlors remained closed as TV stations turned over programming to quake coverage. The torch relay, due to reach Shanghai on May 20, was postponed.
While the final impact of the quake is still unclear, some analysts have warned that China’s GDP growth could suffer. The government has said that the economic fallout will reach US$9.6 billion in Sichuan alone. Continuing aftershocks could push that number higher.