MIANYANG, China – Evacuees headed down from temporary camps Wednesday after Chinese authorities declared the flood threat over from an earthquake-formed lake that was successfully drained the day before.
On the eve of the one-month anniversary of China's May 12 quake that killed nearly 70,000 people, soldiers, medical workers and politicians gathered in Beijing's Great Hall of the People to hear emotional testimonials about the massive aid effort.
The event was organized by the Communist Party's propaganda department and broadcast live on state television, underscoring the government's emphasis on positive coverage amid a long and daunting recovery effort.
In Sichuan province's Mianyang, the largest urban area directly threatened by the Tangjiashan quake lake, people were again setting up tents and improvised shelters along city sidewalks, confident the flood threat had passed. Soldiers helped people carry mattresses and carts and motorized vehicles passed by loaded with plastic stools and bottled water.
Although they remained homeless, residents said conditions closer to home were far superior to those in the hastily erected camps in the hills where some had been living for almost two weeks.
"Life wasn't so good up there. When it rained the water didn't drain and sometimes it reached up to our ankles," said street sweeper Zhao Shuping, 46, who sought shelter on higher ground on June 2.
Senior military leaders on Wednesday said the threat posed by Tangjiashan lake has ended. Authorities had evacuated 250,000 people out of concern of a breaching of Tangjiashan lake, formed when landslides blocked a river above the destroyed town of Beichuan, the largest of 30 created by the quake.
Soldiers dug a diversion channel and blast away boulders and large debris with dynamite, bazookas and recoilless guns to speed up the drainage. On Tuesday, churning waters poured through a man-made sluice and engulfed low-lying, empty towns but spared larger areas downstream.
"As of June 10, Tangjiashan quake lake is no longer considered dangerous," said Senior Col. Wen Zhixiong, deputy director general for the Operations Bureau of the People's Armed Police Force during a press conference.
Wen said soldiers and armed police had worked around the clock for nine days to dig a 485-meter-long (1,600-feet-long) sluice to release the lake's rising water levels. Some 700 soldiers trekked on foot to deliver three tons of dynamite, diesel and other materials to the area, he said.
Maj. Gen. Ma Jian, deputy chief of operations, said the military suffered only five deaths during rescue efforts — the five crew members aboard a chopper that crashed May 31 as it was ferrying 13 injured people from the quake zone.
On Wednesday, a relief helicopter made a forced landing near the quake-hit city of Shifang in Sichuan province after a mechanical breakdown, injuring three people, Xinhua reported. The helicopter, carrying 13 quake relief workers and crew members, landed in an open field, Xinhua said.
More than 100,000 troops remain in the quake zone to help with continuing relief and reconstruction efforts, he said.
In Mianyang, the Fu river that cuts through the city was running high and fast, and life remained far from returning to normal. Many city residents continue to sleep outdoors because of damage to their apartments or fear of the aftershocks that continue to shake the region. Large numbers of businesses were closed, some with sandbags stacked at their entrances to guard against flood waters.
At the Taohuashan camp overlooking the town of Qinglian, about 3,000 evacuees were still waiting for permission to return home. Authorities had told them they needed to disinfect the area before it would be safe.
Evacuees were suffering from exposure, with 10 people recovering in a clinic from heat stroke and numerous cases of the common cold.
Xu Daijin, a 56-year-old farmer, said he was anxious to get back to his crops of beans, gourds, and chili, on which he relied for six months of income totaling about 5,000 yuan (US$723).
"I'm relying on the government to help me. I have no choice. I have nothing left," said Xu, who was tending to a pair of pigs he kept in a pen a short distance from the tents.
China has ordered government departments to cut spending to free-up reconstruction funds for the estimated 5 million people made homeless, few of whom had insurance.
Citing the China Insurance Regulatory Commission, the official Xinhua News Agency said insurance companies had paid 288.6 million yuan (US$41 million) as of June 9 on 249,000 life and property insurance claims.
In contrast, insurance companies have paid more than US$40 billion on 1.7 million property loss claims linked to 2005's Hurricane Katrina.
Planning experts have recommended that more than 30 towns in the quake-hit areas, including the local government seat of Beichuan, be rebuilt elsewhere, according to Caijing, a leading Chinese business magazine.
Caijing said towns recommended for relocation were seriously damaged during the quake, with some sitting on or near fault lines.
Beichuan, for example, may be relocated to an adjacent town of Anxian, and political divisions could be readjusted with rebuilding plans, Caijing reported.
A Sichuan government construction bureau official, who gave only his surname, Liu, said the list of towns to be relocated had not yet to been finalized.