Deadliest Earthquake in a Decade Strikes Northwestern China

( – A devastating earthquake struck the Gansu and Qinghai provinces of China on the night of December 18, killing at least 131 people and injuring nearly 1000. Emergency workers and government officials described the disaster as China’s deadliest quake in at least a decade.

The US Geological Survey estimated the magnitude at 5.9, while China’s Earthquake Administration pinned it at 6.2. Hitting in the mountainous northern reaches of the nation while temperatures plummeted below zero, the quake caused snow, ice, and slush to cover roads, further isolating smaller remote villages in the economically compromised area.

Li Haibing, a Chinese geologist, explained that the seismic disturbance was shallower at a depth of about 6 miles and that movements, or S-waves, were primarily on the vertical plane, causing more shaking and leading to more destruction. He also said most buildings in the region were constructed from mud, clay, or earthen bricks and couldn’t withstand the violent shaking from the earthquake. Additionally, he pointed to the fact that the quake happened in the middle of the night, catching the greatest number of people in the most vulnerable places while unaware.

The region also experienced a series of at least nine aftershocks measuring 3.0 or higher in magnitude by Wednesday morning. The initial quake and aftershocks disrupted power and water supplies across the region, making rescue and remediation efforts even more challenging.

Gansu government officials said they had constructed temporary tent housing for as many as 87,000 people displaced by the quake. Yet, the bitter cold continued to reduce the chances of rescue for those trapped in rubble awaiting help. Officials estimate the trembler damaged more than 200,000 buildings, collapsing several and rendering up to 80% of homes uninhabitable.

In addition to snow, some areas experienced mudslides that covered buildings and roads. Operators used heavy equipment to excavate paths. Yet, government officials conceded that most rescue efforts had ceased by Wednesday morning, turning instead to recovery.

A quake in 2008 in Sichuan Province, near Ginsu, killed 90,000, making it the most deadly event in the region.

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