Rescuers searching for survivors from twin earthquakes that struck southwestern China battled blocked roads and downed communications on Saturday as the death toll rose to 80.
Scores of people were leaving their homes in the mountainous border area of Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, carrying their belongings amid fears of further aftershocks as volunteers with supplies streamed in the opposite direction.
Some 820 people were injured and 201,000 displaced after two 5.6-magnitude quakes struck the resource rich but impoverished region.
Premier Wen Jiabao, who visited the worst-hit Yiliang county in Yunnan overnight, urged rescue workers to redouble their efforts in the crucial first 72 hours.
“Rescuing people is the top priority,” he said in comments broadcast on CCTV news. The premier wore running shoes as he visited hospital patients and survivors camping out in tents before flying back to Beijing.
Families staying in tents said they feared their homes were no longer safe.
“The house kept shaking and as I have four children, I couldn’t stay there any longer,” said a man surnamed Qing. “We experienced the earthquake and it was terrifying.”
Parents walked around carrying babies on their backs as well as big bundles of possessions. Others took bowls of instant noodles from relief workers and queued to fill them with hot water.
A 12-year-old schoolgirl named Xiaoli said she feared returning to her school, which was damaged during the quake. “We don’t want to go back,” she said.
The death toll may yet rise as crippled infrastructure has made it difficult to collect information, a provincial official told state news agency Xinhua.
The Global Times newspaper said the earthquakes highlighted China’s continued vulnerability to natural disasters, despite decades of rapidly improving wealth and living standards in much of the country.
“A quake as strong as Friday’s… could have caused fewer or even no casualties in a more developed region,” it said.
Television footage showed rescue workers walking across rubble with dogs on leashes.
One team saved a little girl on Saturday afternoon and sent her to the hospital for treatment, a worker told CCTV news.
One village surrounded by near-vertical cliffs had been evacuated as crumbling rock continued to fall. Giant boulders had crushed the road and vehicles.
On Zhaoyi Road, a mountain pass littered with rocks, heading toward Yiliang, families congregated outside their homes, looking reluctant to go inside.
While some left by foot with their meagre belongings, others boarded coaches, looking frail and tired. Volunteers, meanwhile, drove toward the disaster zone carrying food, water and other supplies.
One makeshift volunteer vehicle — a hotel minibus from a nearby town — was adorned with a red banner saying: “We will keep moving to provide help.”
Rain is expected over the next few days, further complicating rescue efforts. Another concern was the possibility of disease spreading after thousands of cattle were killed when sheds caved in.
The US Geological Survey said the first quake struck at 11.20 am (0320 GMT) at a depth of around 10 kilometres (six miles), with the second quake around an hour later.
Residents described how people ran outside buildings screaming as the two shallow quakes hit an hour apart around the middle of the day.
“I was walking on the street when I suddenly felt the ground shaking beneath me,” posted one witness on Sina Weibo, a microblog similar to Twitter.
“People started rushing outside screaming, it still scares me to think of it now.”
The disaster is estimated to have damaged or destroyed 6,600 homes, affected altogether 744,000 people and cost 3.7 billion yuan ($580 million) in direct economic loss, the Yunnan civil affairs department told state media.
Southwest China is prone to earthquakes. In May 2008, an 8.0-magnitude tremor rocked Sichuan and parts of neighbouring Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, killing tens of thousands and flattening swathes of the province.
The Global Times said that after the latest quake, authorities should emphasise safety and sustainability in future developments.
Corner-cutting in construction projects leading to shoddy buildings, especially schools, was blamed for the death toll being as high as it was in the 2008 Sichuan quake.
“Many would prefer bigger, rather than safer but more expensive, houses or apartments,” it said.
“To take the time and invest money in the prevention of natural disasters, which are unpredictable and are unlikely to occur, does not seem like a persuasive proposal to many in China.”