Yunnan earthquake death toll tops 400 as barrier lakes pose new threat to survivors

Rescuers under more pressure as rising waters threaten to inundate villages and seven power stations

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2014, 12:52pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2014, 5:43pm

More than 400 people have died in an earthquake that devastated a Chinese village, state media said on Tuesday, as relatives faced the stark probability that rescuers would only find the remains of their loved ones.

The death toll in the southwestern province of Yunnan had risen to 407, state broadcaster CCTV said on a verified Twitter account, as concerns mounted over a barrier lake formed by a landslide blocking a river in the disaster zone.

Rescuers are racing to evacuate villages near rising lakes formed by landslides following the deadly quake.

Landslides have created barrier lakes where water levels were rising today, posing a new threat to about 800 residents and seven power stations downstream, Xinhua reported. It has also complicated rescue efforts after the 6.5-magnitude quake on Sunday.

Rescue teams have freed dozens of trapped survivors as they dig through the thousands of homes that collapsed when the tremor struck impoverished Ludian county in Yunnan province.

A five-year-old boy freed by hand-digging yesterday was among the 32 people rescued in the first two days, Xinhua reported.

A main road into the worst-hit areas of Ludian was clogged on Tuesday with bulldozers, backhoes and civilian and military vehicles carrying supplies including water and instant noodles.

Further into the quake zone, survivors, including some half-naked, were sitting along muddy roads in the rain waiting for food and medication, Xinhua said.

Medics were reporting severe shortages of medicine and an inability to perform operations on the severely injured, while rescuers said their work had been hampered by continuous downpours and quake-triggered landslides, Xinhua said.

The quake struck at 4.30pm on Sunday about 370km northeast of the Yunnan provincial capital of Kunming. Overhead footage of the quake zone shot by state broadcaster CCTV showed older houses flattened but newer multi-storey buildings still standing.

Ma Yaoqi, an 18-year-old volunteer in the quake zone, said that at least half of the buildings had collapsed on the road from the city of Zhaotong to the hardest-hit town of Longtou. The rest of the buildings were damaged, she said.

WATCH: Relatives mourn after earthquake claims hundreds of lives

“I saw dead bodies being wrapped in quilts and carried away,” said Ma, who arrived with 20 other volunteers on Monday. “Some were wrapped with small quilts. Those must be kids.”

The quake struck at a depth of 10km, according to the US Geological Survey, which put the magnitude at 6.1. China’s earthquake monitoring agency put the magnitude at 6.5.

The Yunnan Civil Affairs Bureau said on its website that 398 people were killed, three were missing and a further 1,801 injured. About 230,000 people had been evacuated.

The central government has allocated 600 million yuan (HK$754 million) for rescue and relief work after the quake, the Finance Ministry said.

Many of the homes that collapsed in Ludian, which has a population of 429,000, were old and made of brick, Xinhua said, adding that electricity and telecommunications were cut off in the county.

The earthquake caused powercuts affecting 38,412 households in 10 townships and villages in Zhaotong City, the prefecture that includes Ludian. 

Officials at China Southern Power Grid, which supplies electricity across the region, said that by 8pm last night power had been restored to at least 29,400 households - 76.5 per cent of Zhaotong 's affected residents.

In Longtoushan township  the epicentre of the quake, which lies within Ludian  74.8 per cent of households also had electricity supplies restored by 8pm last night.

The mountainous region where the quake occurred is largely agricultural, with farming and mining the top industries, and is prone to earthquakes.

More than 2,500 troops were dispatched to the disaster region, Xinhua said. The government also sent thousands of tents, quilts, sleeping bags, cotton coats, folding beds, chairs and tables, and 50 mobile toilets, Xinhua said.

Premier Li Keqiang reached the worst-hit area on Monday afternoon to oversee quake relief, state media reported.

Volunteers from areas including Kunming, Chongqing, Guizhou and Beijing have arrived at the quake zone to help local police, soldiers and firefighters searching for survivors.

Yunnan media reported that many residents in Kunming and Zhaotong cities have been queuing up to donate blood to help care for those people who have been injured.

Yin Jianye, Yunnan’s vice-governor, said the local government has doubled the amount of compensation it is paying to the families of victims – up from 10,000 yuan per victim it promised soon after Sunday's quake – to 20,000 yuan.

In 1970, a magnitude-7.7 earthquake in Yunnan killed at least 15,000 people, and a magnitude-7.1 quake killed more than 1,400 in 1974. In September 2012, 81 people died and 821 were injured in a series of quakes in the region.

In May 2008, a powerful quake in Sichuan province left nearly 90,000 people dead.

Additional reporting by Nectar Gan and Agence France-Presse