Archive for Saturday, July 19, 2008

Experts offer advice on rebuilding after earthquake

Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, left, and an unidentified man tour an earthquake-damaged building, Thursday in Dujiangyan, China. A group of international urban planning experts have been brought in to offer their expertise as China begins planning its reconstruction.

Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, left, and an unidentified man tour an earthquake-damaged building, Thursday in Dujiangyan, China. A group of international urban planning experts have been brought in to offer their expertise as China begins planning its reconstruction.

July 19, 2008

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— Two months after an earthquake ravaged much of Sichuan province, workers are diligently salvaging bricks to restore a 6th century Taoist temple damaged in the disaster.

As China begins to look beyond emergency response toward long-term reconstruction, experts on post-disaster planning warn that expectations should be realistic since rebuilding will take years.

"I saw them cleaning the bricks one by one," said Robert Olshansky, an urban planner at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who has studied post-disaster reconstruction.

"You keep doing that, in a couple of years, you'll be done," he said, before cautioning, "Be patient. It takes a long time."

Olshansky was among two dozen international experts who came to Sichuan this week to assess the damage from the 7.9-magnitude quake, which claimed nearly 70,000 lives and left 5 million homeless.

It is the first visit by such a large gathering of urban planners and disaster recovery experts to the quake zone, where many mountains were raked clean, towns collapsed into heaps of rubble and shoddily constructed schools were flattened.

The trip was co-organized by Zhao Jinhua, an urban planner at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Zhao had seen news coverage of how the earthquake had devastated the region and wanted to find a way to help his homeland. His idea was simple: Could the tragedy be used as an opportunity not just to rebuild - but to do it right?

China "is very good at short-term response but less so at systematic longer-term work. That's why I brought in international experts," said Zhao, a doctoral student in urban planning.

Zhao tapped into the China Planning Network, an international group of academics that study urbanization in China, to assemble a stellar list of experts from Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley and MIT, as well as experts from Europe, the United Nations and Tokyo Metropolitan University in Japan.

"You don't want all the energy consumed by the initial response. ... These are experts on urban systems who look at longer-term city recovery," he said.

First on the group's agenda: See the damage inflicted in Dujiangyan, a city of 700,000 about 55 miles south of the quake's epicenter.

They were taken by bus through the main streets, where bare shells of broken apartment buildings remain standing but empty. Rows of blue and white tents - part of hundreds of temporary resettlement camps throughout the province - lined the sides of the road, a visible reminder that an estimated 80 percent of the city's residents have been displaced.

Commercial shops were largely shuttered while bulldozers and backhoes rumbled at sites across the city. Blue fences surrounded flattened lots where the worst-hit buildings had been demolished.

But their first stop was high above the city at the badly damaged Two Kings Temple, a 1,500-year-old Taoist sanctuary set in the hills overlooking a river. A dozen workers in hard hats were busy sifting through debris with bare hands to salvage bricks to be used in reconstructing the historic site.

The tour, organized by government officials, included a 10-minute stop at the site of a three-story gym that had dramatically pancaked in one corner, before the experts were herded back on the bus. The brief visit reflected the sensitivity that remains over accusations that poor construction of buildings, particularly at schools, had contributed to the huge loss of life.

The half-day trip showcased only a fraction of the quake's power, said Steven French, an urban planner from the Georgia Institute of Technology who creates computer models that assess damage by earthquakes.

"We saw a pretty small slice of damage today," he said. "I'd rather we'd gotten closer to the epicenter. I'd like to have seen what happened in the rural areas. I wanted to see how the landslides affected the areas."

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