Updated at 1:00 p.m. EST on 2012-09-07
At least 64 people died and hundreds were injured after two moderate earthquakes hit southwestern China on Friday, toppling thousands of substandard buildings that were not earthquake-proof, Chinese media reported.
Authorities in Yunnan ordered a level-one emergency response to the quakes, where two tremors, measured at 5.7 and 5.6 on the Richter scale, hit the border region between Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, sending people running onto the streets to escape shaking buildings.
In Yunnan, 6,650 houses were destroyed and 430,000 damaged, while more than 100,000 residents have been evacuated and another 100,000 are in need of relocation, the state-run news agency Xinhua said, quoting the provincial civil affairs department.
China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) said it had dispatched 1,300 soldiers equipped with relief materials to help with rescue and relief efforts, the agency reported.
In stark contrast to the real-time round-the-clock coverage in the initial hours after the disastrous 2008 Sichuan earthquake, domestic news outlets limited their reports mostly to material provided by Xinhua and China Central Television (CCTV).
Communication to the worst-hit regions was apparently cut off on Friday, making independent verification of official media reports difficult.
Two people were injured and the lives of 28,000 people were disrupted in Guizhou, where 18 houses were toppled and more than 10,000 damaged in Weining county, Xinhua said.
The earthquakes, which struck at 11:19 a.m. and again one hour later, were fairly shallow, but substandard buildings have led to higher than expected casualties, according to one report.
Many people rushed out of buildings as the temblor jolted the border area, Xinhua reported.
The agency's reporters in Luozehe township in Yunnan's Yiliang county said roads in the area were blocked by huge rocks that fell onto rural roads, obstructing traffic.
There were also indications that the death toll may climb much higher.
Xinhua quoted Li Fuchun, head of Yiliang's Luozehe township, as saying that the number of casualties there "might be high" and would be impossible to verify until rescuers manage to reach remote areas of the district.
"The hardest part of the rescue will be handling traffic," Li said. "Roads are blocked and rescuers have to climb mountains to reach hard-hit villages."
Local miner Peng Zhuwen said his brother was killed by falling rocks, and that aftershocks had continued to hit the region.
Photographs posted to China's popular microblogging services showed people standing out on the streets of Yiliang's earthquake-prone Zhaotong city, apparently afraid to go back inside.
Densely populated area
Huang Fugang, head of the Yunnan provincial seismological bureau, told the Southern Metropolis news website that while Friday's 5.7 magnitude earthquake was moderate on the Richter scale, it had struck a densely populated area.
"The area where the earthquake struck was fairly special, in that there is high population density there," Huang said. "On average, Yunnan has a population density of 117 people per square kilometer, but this district has a population density of 205 people per square kilometer."
"This is far, far higher than the provincial average."
Buildings in the area were also below standard when it came to earthquake-proofing, he added, in a report that was widely circulated on China's Twitter-like service, Sina Weibo.
"Many of the buildings there are built from bricks and beams, and they don't have much load-bearing capacity," Huang said. "These structures basically aren't earthquake-proof."
He said the rugged, mountainous terrain would also hamper relief efforts, although netizens also passed around official media photographs of rescue tents pitched at the scene, sent by the Chinese Red Cross.
"This district has high mountains, steep slopes, and difficult terrain," Huang told the paper.
Microbloggers posted candles and prayers on Sina Weibo for the quake victims, as official media reported that premier Wen Jiabao was en route to the scene of the disaster.
President Hu Jintao, who is currently attending an economic leadership summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Vladivostok, called for immediate efforts to help with disaster relief work.
Reported by Luisetta Mudie.