GUOHUI, China (Reuters) - Rescuers in southwestern China tried on Saturday to reach remote communities rocked by earthquakes that killed at least 80 people and damaged thousands of buildings, state media reported.
Shallow 5.6 magnitude quakes struck an impoverished, mountainous part of the country with poor infrastructure and communications on Friday and the death toll could rise as news trickles in from cut-off areas, the Xinhua news agency said.
The quakes cut off electricity and triggered landslides that blocked roads, hampering rescue efforts. Adding to rescuers’ difficulties was rain which forecasters said was expected for the next three days.
“I was extremely scared when it started to shake. After it shook the first, second and third times, it was moving and I was extremely scared,” said 56-year-old Zhou Weiping, a resident of the township of Guohui in Yiliang county, near the epicentre.
“We panicked and quickly ran out,” she said
State television showed crumbled walls and roads strewn with rubble and rocks. The broadcaster put the death toll at 89 earlier in the day, but later revised it to “at least 80”, in line with the official Xinhua news agency’s tally.
More than 800 people were injured, Xinhua said.
More than 200,000 people in Yunnan province were relocated after the quakes levelled more than 6,600 houses and damaged many more thousands of buildings. Up to 740,000 people were affected in Yunnan’s six worst-hit counties, officials said.
In neighbouring Guizhou province, more than 11,700 houses were damaged and the lives of nearly 28,000 people were disrupted, the state news agency and officials said.
Buildings in China’s less developed regions are often built with little regard for construction standards, making them susceptible to earthquakes.
Premier Wen Jiabao held an emergency meeting on his plane as he flew to the disaster zone late on Friday. He reached Yiliang, in Yunnan province, near the epicentre, just after midnight and spent the night visiting quake survivors in villages and hospitals, Xinhua said.
State broadcaster CCTV showed Wen talking to victims in a tent settlement set up for the displaced. He called for “rapid, all-out efforts to search for survivors and save lives,” according to Xinhua
“We have to keep safety as a top concern and guard against epidemics,” Wen was quoted as saying.
Rescuers in Yunnan said they had reached most of the worst-hit areas and the province’s civil affairs department was quoted as putting direct economic losses at 3.7 billion yuan ($583 million).
In 2008, some 87,600 people were killed in the southwestern province of Sichuan when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit.
Reporting by Reuters TV and Reuters Pictures in Guohui, and John Ruwitch in Shanghai; Editing by Robert Birsel and Robin Pomeroy