China Premier Li Flies to Quake Zone as Death Toll Jumps

China’s Premier Li Keqiang flew to the southwestern province of Sichuan to oversee relief work as the death toll from yesterday’s earthquake climbed to 179 and officials struggled to help 1.5 million people affected by it.

State television showed footage of Li meeting with local government officials and rescue teams yesterday evening, visiting hospitals, talking to the injured and climbing over the rubble of buildings that collapsed after the temblor struck Lushan county, about 1,650 kilometers (1,000 miles) southwest of Beijing.

The earthquake, measured at magnitude 6.6 by the U.S. Geological Survey, hit on the same fault line as a 7.9 tremor that devastated nearby Wenchuan in May 2008. That was the country’s deadliest seismic event in more than three decades, leaving more than 87,000 people dead or missing including as many as 5,335 children, according to government figures.

Li’s rush to the region a month into his first term as premier echoes that of his predecessor Wen Jiabao, who flew to Wenchuan to reassure people that the Communist Party was doing everything possible to help. Thousands of military and armed police, firefighters, medical personnel, civilian relief workers and emergency response teams are in the region.

“The current priority is to save lives,” Li was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency. “We should grasp the golden period for saving lives and waste not a moment,” he said last night while chairing a meeting in a tent in Lushan.

The Ministry of Civil Affairs’s latest tally of those injured is 11,492 and it estimates that about 1.5 million people in Sichuan province have been affected. The ministry has already sent relief materials including 30,000 tents, 50,000 cotton blankets and 10,000 makeshift beds to the area, it said yesterday.

Relief Efforts

Li reassured an injured woman who lost contact with her husband and son that rescuers would do their best to find them, according to a report today on the website of the official People’s Daily newspaper. He also told a patient being treated at a hospital in Chengdu, “you should fully rest to recover and don’t worry about the medical bills as the government will take care of you,” the paper said.

Landslides cut off roads and knocked out power and phone systems, hampering efforts by relief teams to get to villages in the more remote areas of Lushan county. Baoxing county, an isolated area that was one of the worst hit by the quake, was reached today and rescuers with sniffer dogs are looking for survivors, Xinhua reported, citing the Ministry of Public Security’s rescue headquarters in Lushan. Many villages and townships are still cut off, it said.

International Help

Even so, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said today the country had the resources to cope with the disaster and didn’t need international help for now, indicating the disaster may not be as serious as the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.

Longmen and Qingren townships are among the worst affected by the quake, Xinhua said, citing Jin Zelin, an official with the provincial armed police corps. Most of the buildings in the old urban area of Lushan county and Longmen have collapsed, Xinhua said, citing the local government. Three other townships in the county are cut off, it said.

Lushan, a mountainous rural area, was badly hit by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake when many houses were destroyed, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Road Congestion

About 120,000 people are in need of temporary shelter, food and water, Francis Markus, Beijing-based East Asia spokesman for the organization, said in a telephone interview yesterday. Teams from the China Red Cross trying to get to townships near the epicenter are stuck because the road is blocked by a collapsed house, he said. Roads are also congested with rescue vehicles, he added.

“The first 24 hours are critical after an earthquake to get to people who may be trapped,” Markus said. “These kinds of problems are happening right across the area and presenting big logistical challenges to rescue workers.”

CCTV’s news channel has been broadcasting live from quake zone, interviewing officials and local people and showing footage of rescue workers searching for survivors in collapsed buildings and clearing roads. White tents have been erected in public areas as medical treatment centers and temporary shelter.

Power lines and mobile-phone base stations were knocked out and five hydropower stations in Ya’an were disconnected, Xinhua said yesterday.

Mining Halted

The State Administration of Work Safety ordered mining in the region halted and the inspection of oil and gas pipelines to avoid leaks and explosions, according to Xinhua. Sinopec Group, Asia’s largest refiner, said no damage has been reported at its production facilities in the area, Xinhua said.

The earthquake hasn’t affected PetroChina Co.’s oil and gas production or transmission operations in the area, Mao Zefeng, a spokesman in Beijing for the country’s largest producer of oil and natural gas, said by telephone yesterday. The company hasn’t reported any casualties, he said.

Toyota Motor Corp. halted production at its plant in Chengdu yesterday and told employees to go home to ensure the safety of their families. The factory wasn’t damaged and will resume output tomorrow, Akihiro Yamamoto, the Aichi, Japan-based company’s China executive coordinator said in Shanghai today where he is attending an auto show.

Secondary Disasters

The temblor was felt in neighboring Chongqing municipality and in the provinces of Guizhou, Gansu, Shaanxi and Yunnan, Xinhua reported. As of 8 a.m. local time, the region suffered 1,165 aftershocks with three measuring magnitudes of 5.0 to 5.9, Xinhua reported, citing the China Earthquake Administration.

Pan Huaiwen, director of the China Earthquake Networks Center, warned of secondary disasters including landslides, mud-rock flows and the collapse of caves and riverbanks, Xinhua said. Western, southwestern and northwestern China are prone to earthquakes. A magnitude 5.1 temblor struck Yunnan province on April 17 and one measuring 5.4 hit Sichuan in January.

At least 80 people died after two magnitude 5.6 temblors shook Yunnan and Guizhou provinces in September, according to Xinhua reports at the time. A 6.9 quake which hit Qinghai province on the Tibetan Plateau in April 2010 caused death toll of about 2,700, data from the provincial government show.

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