The known scale of the tragedy so far. One of the worst-hit areas appears to be Beichuan county, part of the Mianyang city municipal area, about 50km from the epicentre. Some 80% of buildings there were reported to have been destroyed, leaving between 3,000 and 5,000 people dead and up to 10,000 injured. Meanwhile hundreds of people were reported to have been buried in two collapsed chemical plants in Shifang in Sichuan, and at least five other schools were reported to be in ruins. More than 150 people were killed in the other provinces of Gansu and Shaanxi, and in Chongqing municipality, Xinhua said. The death toll could turn out to be much higher once the damage in Wenchuan county – the epicentre – is assessed, says BBC China analyst Shirong Chen. — BBC

The official response. The prime minister, Wen Jiabao, flew to the scene while thousands of army troops and paramilitary police headed to the region after President Hu Jintao ordered an “all out” rescue effort. State television showed a clearly emotional Wen vowing not to waste a moment. At one point he was pictured shouting into a hole: “Everyone hang in there. We’re rescuing you.” The authorities and rescue teams were attempting to make contact with the areas cut off, but forecasts of rain added to the scale of that challenge. The state broadcaster CCTV issued tips for anyone trapped. It said: “If you’re buried, keep calm and conserve your energy. Seek water and food and wait patiently for rescue.” — Guardian

Click the image below for footage of students sheltering from the quake

No news is bad news. There has been no news from the county in southwest China at the epicenter of a deadly earthquake, more than nine hours after the disaster struck on Monday, state press reported. All lines of communication had been cut with Wenchuan county, which has a population of 112,000 people, Xinhua reported, adding rescue teams had been unable to reach there because the roads had been destroyed. The lack of news from Wenchuan raises the prospect of the death toll rising dramatically, as Xinhua has already reported thousands of deaths in nearby areas of Sichuan province. — Agence France Presse

Earthquakes in China. China is prone to seismic activity and has suffered horrific earthquakes in the recent past. In 1976, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the city of Tangshan, located roughly 70 miles from Beijing. More than 240,000 people were killed and nearly every building was leveled. Communist Party officials initially covered up the extent of the death toll. Many of China’s biggest cities, including Beijing, are located in high-risk earthquake zones. — Jim Yardley, New York Times

A new relief call. One measure of how China has changed can be seen through the government’s handling of natural disasters. The magnitude 7.8 earthquake that devastated Sichuan and surrounding provinces was followed by an almost immediate all-hands-on-deck call by the Chinese government and an acknowledgement of a serious emergency. It remains to be seen whether the country accepts foreign aid, already offered by President Bush and European leaders, but the fact that the country is openly addressing the disaster and has not (yet) outright refused all help is itself a sign of progress. — Seattle Post Intelligencer

Click the image below for New York Times slideshow of the earthquake damage

Aussie tells of quake horror. Australian Geoff McGuigan was at Chengdu airport when the earthquake hit. He described the panic as the intensity worsened. “Everyone started to yell and scream and there was this huge wall of humanity running towards me and the door,” Mr McGuigan said on Channel 7 today … “The main glass in the windows was bulging out like bubbles about to burst. (Outside) the road was really moving and it was becoming more intense and really powerful and I looked around and realised that I was on an elevated road – I’d come out of the second storey of the terminal. As we went you could see it (the road) move and shudder and twist and flex as it became more intense. As we got closer to getting to the ground level one of the expansion joints between the sections of the roadway – the road lifted at the joint from one side and then just slipped back down again.” — Herald Sun

NEWSWEEK: This region suffered several smaller earthquakes earlier this year. Was it prepared for something like this?

Weimin Dong (who has served on technical committees at the California -based Earthquake Engineering Research Institute and has studied earthquake-related insurance issues in China): This is a moderate earthquake area, which in the Chinese design code is specified using an intensity number of 7 for new buildings. Beijing, for example, is 8, and other areas could even be a 9, which is much [more severe]. At the epicenter area of this earthquake, the intensity was actually about 10. But the design required for this area is only for an intensity of 7, which I think explains a lot of the damage for the buildings in the area. That’s different from magnitude, since each earthquake has only one magnitude, while intensity looks at ground motion in areas far from the epicenter, which receive less intensity. Here, the highest intensity for this earthquake is about 9 to 10, and it goes down to 5. — Newsweek

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