ASCE Team Gets First-Person View
Of Sichuan Earthquake Aftermath
Engineers Assess 'Extensive' Damage to Lifeline Infrastructure in Southwest China


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Chengdu reion travel map
The three routes followed by the ASCE team in their tour of earthquake damage in the Sichuan region.

the world’s focus on China has shifted to Beijing and the Summer Olympics, in southwest China the Sichuan people continue to cope in the aftermath of the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that devastated the region on May 12. Although much of the Sichuan region affected was rural, the damage has been vast and severe, with at least 70,000 people killed, whole villages flattened, and transportation, power and telecommunications grids snapped.

Into this wide swath of devastation, a team of engineers under the auspices of ASCE and its Technical Council on Lifeline Earthquake Engineering descended in mid-July to survey the extent of infrastructure damage, following the guidance of a University of Beijing School of Mining Technology professor who had toured the scene firsthand.

The team was conceived and assembled by ASCE member Alex Tang, P.E., F.ASCE, president of L&T Engineering and Project Management, Mississauga, Ontario. Other ASCE members on the team were Prof. Jun Yang of Hong Kong University, director of ASCE’s Hong Kong chapter; David Lee, senior engineer of the East Bay (Calif.) Municipal Utility District; and Conrad Felice, president and CEO of Lachel Felice & Associates of Kirkland, Wash. Also joining the team as guides were Prof. He Manchao of the University of Beijing and Jin Wang, a Ph.D. student from South-West Jiaotong University in Chengdu.

Members arrived in Beijing from July 12 to July 14, with the full team coming together for the first time on July 15 for a briefing by Prof. He, who coordinated the team’s trip through the quake zone. The plan was to be in the disaster area for four days and return to Beijing for a debriefing session the following day. Prof. He described what he had witnessed and experienced in his trip to the quake zone, and agreed to provide the ASCE/TCLEE team with his photos for use in an official monograph that will be completed by Tang.

The trip would of course have its physical challenges, but Prof. He also advised the team that there could be other kinds of challenges. The professor expected that many roads that had been blocked due to landslides while he was there might be cleared by the time the team would arrive. Another issue to consider would be the need to negotiate with Chinese army guards at security checkpoints. The guards sometimes would not allow anyone to cross into the zone when they deemed it unsafe, regardless of access approval from Beijing. For the team, Prof. He’s experience proved invaluable in these areas.

Tang provided ASCE with an eyewitness account of the team’s trip through the devastated Sichuan zone and what they experienced. Here, in Tang’s own words, are his preliminary observations about what he and his team recorded as experienced civil engineers. Tang is working on a formal report with more details, to be issued at a later date.

"Prof. He had a friend, Prof. Yang Lizhong, vice principal of South-West Jiaotong University in Chengdu, provide us one of his Ph.D. students [Jin Wang] with a good knowledge of the disaster area as our guide. We appreciate their support and taking time off their busy schedules to help us.

"Prof. He's research on landslide monitoring presented to us during the morning [July 15] session shows the high potential earthquake fault monitoring can have in predicting quakes. More details will be shared at a later date [in the monograph]. The team members easily agreed with He's travel plan. He was very considerate, purchasing insurance for team members when arranging rental cars. We traveled to Chengdu from Beijing on July 15 after our briefing session, and we arrived at the hotel in Chengdu around 6 p.m.

"There was an interesting rumor told by the driver during our trip from Chengdu airport to the hotel. He told us that during the earthquake, an old man riding his bicycle passed the Chairman Mao [Zedong] statue at the city center square and saw Chairman Mao waving at him, so he stopped and waved back."

Once the team arrived in the areas close to the surface fault zone, "damage to roads, highways and bridges was extensive. The damage zone is estimated at 4 to 5 kilometers wide. The surface fault is about 160 to 180 kilometers in length, with the total earthquake damage area about 800 square miles. Most of this area is mountainous with many small communities. Major landslides caused extreme difficulty in reaching these communities during the first two weeks after the earthquake. We reached the northernmost faulting zone on July 17 -- Nanba town.

"During our visit we found that the bridges damaged were about 30 degrees normal to the fault and the majority of the landslides were on the west side. That is, the damaged bridges were all oriented in the east-west direction, while the faulting was in the north-south direction.

"Many of our photos were drive-by shots, as we were not allowed to stop to take pictures on mountain roads that were damaged by landslides or rockslides. These photos generally have a haze that comes from the car windshield."

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