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Chinese Quake Death Toll Nears 29,000


The official death toll from the massive earthquake that struck southwestern China Monday is nearing 29,000. Aftershocks and flooding, however, are posing new threats to survivors. Chinese officials have ordered thousands of people to evacuate communities near the earthquake's epicenter, because of possible danger from flood waters. From Beijing, VOA correspondent Stephanie Ho spoke with reporter Daniel Schearf, who was in the town of Beichuan and described the scene.

Reporter Daniel Schearf had just arrived Saturday in Beichuan, Sichuan, which is close the epicenter of Monday's quake.

He began looking around the ruined city, when he noticed a large number of people fleeing from something, and said, "There are a lot of people going there now. I mean, I'm talking hundreds [of people] going to this area, and I'm following behind them. And they're all at a good jog."

It was not long before he started to get worried, saying, "They're saying get out, get out, get out. This is not good."

Schearf said another journalist he ran into told him a dam upstream had broken and that floodwaters were coming. "He said get going, get going, get going. You need to get to high ground fast."

The official explanation did not have to do with a dam, but did involve potential flooding. China's state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that authorities were evacuating thousands of people near a lake and a river, where the rising water level has already overflowed into the streets of one village.

The reason given is that multiple landslides set off by Monday's powerful quake already has blocked parts of the Qingzhu River. Experts were quoted as saying more debris set off by aftershocks could push the water level to an even higher, more dangerous level.

Xinhua said authorities in Beichuan County want to explode part of the embankment of a nearby lake, in an apparent effort to relieve some of the water level pressure.

One expert, who was not identified, warned that if the lake bursts on its own, "it will form a 40-kilometer long waterway, and the results will be grave."

Hundreds of rescuers and local residents have been told to leave nearby areas and go to higher ground for shelter.

Throughout the earthquake zone, nearly 5 million people have lost their homes. Also, authorities are working hard to ward off infectious diseases transmitted through contaminated water or unsanitary conditions.

One growing issue is the number of schools that collapsed - about 7,000 by official media accounts. The quake wiped out entire schools and trapped all the students inside. For many grieving Chinese parents, this issue is even more poignant because they lost their only child. Critics say the buildings were constructed in a substandard fashion, so that the builders could cut costs. Chinese officials say they will investigate.

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