A year ago today

JISHOU, HUNAN — I am writing this brief post in between reading student diaries and essays. The local time is 3:00 pm. One year ago, at 2:28 pm, a massive earthquake hit Wenchuan County in Sichuan Province, which adjoins western Hunan.

The magnitude 8 quake killed more than 69,000 people, including more than 5,300 schoolchildren, injured more than 370,000, and left at least 4.8 million homeless. There are still thousands of residents unaccounted for.

My students here in Hunan tell me they could feel the earthquake in their own middle schools and at Jishou University. Buildings swayed in Beijing and Shanghai hundreds of miles from the epicenter in central Sichuan. No one knew the extent of the disaster until a few hours later, as the nation heard reports of derailed trains, ruined highways, non-existent cell phone coverage, and piles of rubble where buildings and schools once stood.

A year later, the region is still far from recovered. While China has done an admirable job in responding to the disaster, better in many ways than the US responded to the less deadly Louisiana hurricanes, there is some discontent. There are recriminations that schools were shoddily constructed, inviting catastrophic collapses in an earthquake. The government has squelched public protests about poor school construction. Rumors say some provincial officials have absconded with millions of dollars in national and international reconstruction donations. Meanwhile, residents complain they are still homeless, still have no work, still cannot find enough to eat.

The complaints, while valid, pall in comparison to the death toll, of course. Most difficult of all to comprehend is the number of children lost as their schools collapsed on top of them and their teachers.

It all happened within three minutes, without warning. Then the earth was quiet again.

But not the survivors.

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