Earthquake in China's Yunnan province razes an estimated 22,550 houses

Earthquake in China's Yunnan province razes an estimated 22,550 houses
Rescuers carry an injured earthquake victim in Ludian County in southwestern China's Yunnan province. (AFP/Getty Images)

The rising death toll from a magnitude 6.1 earthquake in southwestern China's Yunnan province is putting the spotlight on the poor quality of construction in the rugged, mountainous terrain.

By late Monday, 398 people were reported dead and 1,891 injured from the quake in Ludian County, 277 miles north of Kunming, the provincial capital.


More than 22,550 houses collapsed and nearly 200,000 others were damaged, according to an assessment by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent.

The rescue effort was hindered by torrential rains, mudslides, flooding and the complicated mountain topography.

The earthquake may have damaged several hydroelectric dams. A "quake lake" formed around one dam under construction in nearby Huize County, and rapidly rising waters were forcing the evacuation of more villagers.

The quake struck at 4:30 p.m. Sunday. The U.S. Geological Survey reported its magnitude at 6.1 and its depth a relatively shallow 6 miles, which made the shaking greater. The China Earthquake Networks Center put the magnitude at 6.5.

"The houses crumbled all at once," Liu Lumei told the official New China News Agency. She was interviewed at a hospital where her daughter-in-law was being treated. "It was so scary."

Aerial photos showed old wooden houses that looked like little more than splinters, but survivors reported that some of the new structures collapsed as well.

Ma Liya of Zhaotong, the largest city in the region, told the news agency that her neighbor's new two-story house had toppled.

"What I can see are all ruins," Ma said, adding that the streets looked like a "battlefield after bombardment."

The large number of collapses during a major earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 gave rise to the term "tofu buildings," referring to the shoddy structures that immediately gave way. In that quake, 90,000 people died, many of them children crushed in schools. Afterward, old houses in much of quake-prone western China were demolished and replaced with sturdier structures.

"Most rural houses in the county were made of brick or wood, were not designed to be resistant to quakes, and many of them were outdated," the China Earthquake Administration said in a statement carried by state news media.

Nevertheless, Ludian County has seen considerable new construction in recent years, funded in large part by migrants employed in coastal factories who come back and build homes.

A magnitude 7.1 earthquake in 1974 centered in Zhaotong destroyed much of the city and caused about 1,500 deaths.