Powerful M5.9 earthquake kills over 120 in China; Survivors face subzero temperatures

Deadly earthquake hits China; Over 120 people dead on December 18-19 2023
Deadly earthquake hits China; Over 120 people dead on December 18-19 2023. Via NYT

The 5.9-magnitude earthquake struck Gansu Province around midnight. People who had fled their homes huddled in the cold, building fires to keep warm.

An earthquake killed at least 120 people in a mountainous area of northwestern China, officials and state media said on Tuesday, crumpling buildings while residents slept inside and sending people rushing into a frigid night.

Rescuers were searching for survivors in rural Jishishan County in Gansu Province, the epicenter of the quake, officials from Gansu said at a news conference on Tuesday. They said the quake, which struck at 11:59 p.m. on Monday, had killed 113 people in the province and injured more than 500 others.

Thirteen people in the city of Haidong in neighboring Qinghai Province were also killed, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

The quake had a magnitude of 5.9, according to the United States Geological Survey, though it was measured at 6.2 by the China Earthquake Administration. Photos and videos shared by state media showed brick houses that had caved in, and bedrooms buried in rubble. Hours later, rescuers were still digging people out, according to CCTV, the state broadcaster.

Prepare now! Protect your home and cars againts EMP, solar flare and lightnings

The quake damaged 15,000 houses and knocked out water, electricity and transportation links in some parts of Gansu, which, like much of the country, is enduring a cold snap. The temperature in Jishishan during the quake was almost -20 degrees Celsius, or about -4 degrees Fahrenheit, according to state media.

In interviews with state media outlets, residents recounted being jolted awake and fleeing into the cold with barely enough time to grab extra layers of clothing. Photos showed people in a plaza wrapped in thick comforters.

On social media, people who said they were at the quake site reported that they had started bonfires in their yards or set fire to cardboard boxes to keep warm. They described the shock of finding out that neighbors or friends had died, and trying to assess the damage to their homes.

Several residents told Jimu News, a site affiliated with Hubei Province, that they expected to spend the night in their cars, driving away from the epicenter. In Gansu’s provincial capital, Lanzhou, 100 miles away, a college student told The Paper, a Shanghai party-affiliated outlet, that the closets in her eighth-floor dorm room had shaken, and that students had felt aftershocks as they fled downstairs from the initial quake.

Some risked running back into the building later for more clothing because of the cold, she said.

On Tuesday morning, rescue workers had set up rows of tents in the main squares of villages affected by the quake, according to CCTV. They were rushing to deliver tens of thousands of cots, blankets, mattresses and coats.

Villagers livestreaming on social media on Tuesday reassured each other that they would rebuild together.

Gansu is one of China’s poorest provinces, and Jishishan County is composed primarily of small townships and villages, home to about 260,000 people, a local official told party-affiliated media. The local government did not have enough clothes, quilts or shoes and would need to rely on the provincial government, said the official, Li Yong.

Prepare now! Protect your home and cars againts EMP, solar flare and lightnings

In 2020, provincial officials formally declared that Jishishan was no longer “poverty-stricken,” as part of a nationwide campaign to supposedly eradicate rural poverty by the end of that year.

Since 1900, there have been three earthquakes of magnitude 6.0 or above, as measured by China, within a 120-mile radius of the Monday quake, state media said.

Parts of Gansu fall within an earthquake-prone belt that runs from Mongolia in the north to Myanmar in the south, Xu Xiwei, a professor at the China University of Geosciences, told state media. Many houses in the area may not be built sturdily enough to resist earthquakes, and the fact that the quake struck late at night likely made it harder for people to escape, adding to the casualties, Professor Xu said.

The State Council, China’s cabinet, and the National Health Commission deployed teams to the site to oversee rescue operations, CCTV said. China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, noted that the disaster had happened in a “high-altitude area with cold weather” and ordered workers to repair infrastructure as quickly as possible.

At 9:46 a.m. on Tuesday, China reported another quake, of magnitude 5.5, in the far western region of Xinjiang, about 1,800 miles west of Jishishan. Information about casualties was not immediately available.

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