Yaan earthquake

Hong Kong-funded schools survive Sichuan earthquake

Safety of buildings funded by HK government shows better construction saves lives, but city lawmakers say money can be misappropriated

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 April, 2013, 5:05am

Hong Kong-funded buildings at two schools in Sichuan hit by Saturday's magnitude-7 earthquake are among the few structures that did not sustain major damage. Many local homes were either seriously damaged or collapsed.

Both schools - Lushan Middle School in downtown Lushan and Longxing Central School in Longmen township - were at the epicentre of the quake, which claimed at least 196 lives.

The schools were opened in 2010 and 2011, with support from the Hong Kong government of 31.37 million yuan (HK$39 million) and 8.64 million yuan, respectively.

The Hong Kong -funded school buildings in Lushan county, Yaan, were not badly built and would be safe after maintenance, mainland housing authorities said after an initial investigation on Wednesday.

Dr Greg Wong Chak-yan, former president of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, said: "Judging from the photos shown to me by the media, the roof, the slabs and the walls have not collapsed. The Lushan school survived the quake."

The quality of Hong Kong-funded reconstruction projects five years after a much stronger quake hit the region is at the centre of a growing public debate in Hong Kong. As a result, a proposal by the Hong Kong government to donate HK$100 million to the provincial government for relief and reconstruction was put on hold after a Legislative Council Finance Committee meeting ended without a vote.

"The fact the building structures are sound doesn't mean officials won't misappropriate donations," said lawmaker Cyd Ho Sau-lan, a member of the Labour Party. "We'd rather the money went to NGOs so they can buy relief supplies such as food, which will reach people directly."

The Hong Kong Jockey Club said yesterday it would donate HK$10 million for immediate relief efforts by institutions in Yaan city it had supported since the quake five years ago.

Questions have also been raised about the use of shale-perforated bricks and expanded polystyrene foam in Hong Kong-funded school buildings. That has raised anger in certain quarters in Hong Kong, with some critics seeing it as evidence that mainland officials misused donations.

But experts say such construction materials are common on the mainland in the building of non-load-bearing walls and for insulation.

Wong agreed that the use of foam and hollow bricks was acceptable in non-load-bearing structures, and backed the use of expanded foam in walls for insulation, but said too much foam could weaken concrete.

The ground floors of the two schools were hardest hit.

Blackboards were damaged and wall tiles fell off and broke, leaving scattered debris. Books were knocked off desks and pictures fell from walls.

No one was injured at the schools, according to officials.

"I have to say, it's quite lucky that the tremor happened on Saturday morning, when school was out," said Zhang Jianhong, deputy head of Lushan Middle School. "Otherwise … some students or teachers may have panicked and anything could have happened."

The light damage stands in stark contrast to the collapse of schools in the 2008 Sichuan quake while buildings around them remained standing. Nearly 90,000 people died in that quake, which the government said destroyed about 7,000 classrooms and dormitories, killing thousands of students. Parents blamed poor school construction for the high death toll.

Zhang said many precautions had been taken at his school since the 2008 quake, and students take part in a quake drill at least once every term.

Zhu Wenhua, Lushan's education chief, said the quality of school buildings could be enhanced further.

"Having realised that our city is sitting atop volatile fault lines, future designs of schools will require materials such as rubber that will help keep students safe during tremors when furniture or debris falls," he said.

As she recovered her textbooks, Zeng Shuanghuan, a 15-year-old at Lushan Middle School, said: "I like this school building. It is so beautiful compared with the old one."

Another of the school's building suffered serious damage. It was built in 2007.