Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Saturday visited earthquake victims in southwest China after twin tremors left at least 80 people dead and hundreds more injured, state media reported.
Television pictures showed Wen, who arrived late Friday, in a tent with survivors in the remote and mountainous area, where crippled infrastructure was complicating efforts to assess the full scale of the disaster.
Wen, who is a popular figure in China and is often shown lending his support in disaster zones, made a speech at an emergency centre surrounded by rescuers, a day after twin 5.6-magnitude quakes struck the poorly developed region.
A spokesman with the provincial civil affairs department meanwhile warned the toll could climb further because impassable roads and downed communications were making it difficult to collect information.
A total of 731 people were injured when the tremors struck on the border of Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, toppling houses and sending panicked crowds onto the streets.
The area 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 newspaper said the latest tremor again 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.
“People who have illusions about China’s national strength have to wake up to the fact that many people still live in houses with similar conditions,” added the editorial.
Residents described how people ran out of buildings screaming as the two shallow quakes hit an hour apart around the middle of the day.
Television footage showed roads strewn with fallen bricks and rocks in Yunnan province’s Yiliang county, which appeared to be worst hit.
Authorities were sending thousands of tents, quilts and coats, and Premier Wen Jiabao was also heading to the area, Xinhua said.
Footage on state television network CCTV showed hundreds of people crowded into a sports field in Yiliang.
People took cover outside after the first quake and did not return indoors, said a man surnamed Xia reached by phone. “Lots of people are outside because they fear aftershocks,” he said.
“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 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. They were followed by several aftershocks.
The earthquakes cut off electricity and triggered landslides, blocking roads, Xinhua said.
Li Fuchun, the head Luozehe township, identified as the epicentre, told Xinhua: “Roads are blocked and rescuers have to climb mountains to reach hard-hit villagers.”
Peng Zhuwen, a worker at a zinc mine in Luozehe, added: “It is scary. My brother was killed by falling rocks. The aftershocks have struck again and again. We are so scared.”
Yunnan’s civil affairs department said that 6,650 houses had been destroyed and 100,000 people evacuated. There were also fears of disease after thousands of cattle were killed when sheds caved in.
Rocks as big as four metres (13 feet) across crashed into mountain roads, crushing houses and cars, Xinhua said.
Disasters in China have in the past been the trigger for popular anger.
After the Sichuan quake, Wen was initially criticised for reading out a dry, official statement calling for courage in the face of disaster.
But within hours, he was on his way to the worst hit areas and once there showed how he can empathise with China’s least fortunate citizens in a series of intimate meetings.
Anger later turned to the corruption blamed for corner cutting in construction projects that was blamed for the collapse of shoddy buildings, especially schools, and for the death toll being as high as it was.
The Global Times said that after the latest quake, authorities should emphasise safety in future developments.
“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,” it concluded. Agencies