Running from the Law: Cassie in China

Monday, May 19, 2008

Cassie in China

On Monday, May 12 in China, an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 with its epicenter in northeast Sichuan province, took place just 90 km northwest of the provincial capital Chengdu, with a population of 11 million people. Tremors from the quake were felt throughout China. Since that time there have been thousands of aftershocks which have rattled areas still reeling from the initial earthquake, shaking frayed nerves of survivors and slowing rescue and relief efforts.

Today, the death toll in worst-hit Sichuan province, southwestern China, rose to at least 34,073 with another 245,109 people hurt and thousands still missing. Authorities have estimated that the final death toll could reach 50,000, while millions more people have been left homeless by the disaster. The hardship continues to grow as Chinese officials have said that nearly 7,000 school buildings collapsed during last Monday's earthquake and now, at least 200 rescue workers have been buried by mud slides during the past three days. So far, almost 60 aid organizations from 13 countries have provided assistance to China in the aftermath of the quake.

As some of you know, my friend Cassie is a Peace Corps volunteer, currently teaching in Chongqing, China (one province away from Sichuan). She has continually been in my thoughts and prayers since I heard about the earthquake. Cassie is one of the most amazing people I have ever met, she’s smart, witty, charming, creative, goofy, sensitive, compassionate and beautiful. She is in China and safe. She’s alright, although understandably nervous, worried and concerned for her students and herself. I received this email from her yesterday and was so moved. I wanted to take the opportunity to share this with you.

The Peace Corps has informed us that foreign and American media continue to report the aftershocks and following earthquakes and show footage of the destruction in Chongqing & Sichuan. Our country director has asked us to make sure our friends & family at home understand the current situation and know that we are safe.

The first earthquake happened here almost a week ago now, last Monday at 3 in the afternoon. That first earthquake was very difficult, not only because it was the strongest but also as there was a complete lack of information from the authorities and chaos reigned on campus for most of the day and night. By midnight on Monday, we were back in our houses and teaching again by Tuesday. Throughout the week, we have continued to have aftershocks, mostly at night. Then, on Friday there was another earthquake in the afternoon, and one that registered 6.0 on the Richter scale late Saturday night, at about 1:30 AM. We continue to evacuate with each subsequent earthquake. Please remember that Chongqing is a municipality, so most of the shots you see on the news of people sleeping outside and devastation in Chongqing are from the rural areas. The urban center has had almost no structural damage. They are still inspecting buildings and supports for bridges and large highways, but life continues almost as normal within the city.

For the most part, the effect for those of us in Chongqing has been mainly psychological. The students are worried and quiet in class. Everyone is exhausted from evacuating at least once almost every night this week. No one seems to be sleeping well. People are definitely on edge. I continue to be unnerved, and to be honest, I often wonder if it really is safe to be indoors or if we're just being told so to avoid public panic. So many of our students have friends and family that they still haven't been able to reach. We all seem to be in a perpetual state of limbo, just waiting.

But the hardest thing has been watching the 24-hour-a-day coverage of the rescue process, with the death toll rising steadily at the bottom of the screen. Horrifying pictures of little children and collapsed schools saturate the papers. The other night I threw up after watching shots of villages that have been completely leveled, with almost no survivors. It is one thing to be on the other side of the world and see pictures like that. But it is entirely different to know this is all happening in Sichuan, the province I trained in. Du Jiang Yan was one of the worst hit cities, with a high school collapsing and trapping 900+ students, and it was a city we've all spent a lot of time in with our host families. My heart breaks for these Chinese people. Inevitably, the places where the devastation is the worst are the poorest areas, affecting people who already had so little to begin with. As the week goes on, they are finding fewer and fewer survivors. They are projecting the death toll will reach 50,000 when all accounted for.

For me, it is an amazingly interesting, although emotionally difficult, time to be in China. Witnessing the government's direct and timely response to the disaster is giving not only the Chinese people faith but (I would imagine) also strengthening their image throughout the world. I can't help but think of Katrina and our government's catastrophic failure. Here, in a place still "developing," their response has been outstanding. After the disaster that has been the torch relay and the unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet, this has been a moment of change for China. For those of you who know a little bit about Chinese history, this has been the exact opposite of the 1976 earthquake that killed more than 240,000 people because the government ignored the reports and didn't respond for days. People here are proud of their country. The soldiers and firefighters are real heroes. Relief efforts are everywhere. My students have no money so they have started collecting clothing and other things to give to the Red Cross. I am helping them to organize donations, and the school has disaster fund boxes everywhere. But even the TV coverage is a new thing for China. Never before has the country been so open about matters of state, and people are able to know the reality of the situation, something previously disallowed. Politically, it is complicated and their motives could be multifaceted, but I hope that to some degree this signals the opening up of Chinese media. Even as I write, Youtube, Myspace, and Yahoo are still blocked, presumably for having unfavorable items up about China. But it is a start. I think it must be. I am hoping this is good news for this summer's Olympics and for freedom of speech in general in China.

I consider myself truly blessed to count such generous and kind people as my friends. I have had so many concerned emails and more offers of packages and money than I know what to do with. I don't need a thing. Really. I have everything I could ever want. I don't know if anything else could have driven that fact home for me more clearly than visions of these people who have lost everything and everyone that is important to them.

If you would still like to do something for me, I would strongly urge you to donate money to the Red Cross instead. Anything would make a difference. The devastation here is so complete and so widespread that it will cost billions of dollars to even begin to put these cities back together. Right now, people don't even have food or clean drinking water, and as the temperature rises and the rain continues, the chance of disease outbreaks and mudslides are growing daily.

In the meantime, just know that I am safe. The Peace Corps is doing a stellar job of keeping track of us all and talking to our schools and local governments. If the situation worsened or any volunteers were in direct danger, we would be evacuated immediately. Don't worry if you can't get through online or to my cell. Internet and phone service go in an out because so many of the towers have been knocked down in the aftershocks.

I miss and love you all. And I am truly looking forward to coming home. It's been too long.

Love, Cassandra

Red Cross Link for Donations & Relief Efforts:

Cassie with students.

Cassie celebrating her 26th Birthday.


  1. Wow, thanks for posting that. It's really interesting and uplifting to read Cassie's take on things from within all the tragedy and turmoil. She sounds like an amazing, positive, strong woman--such an asset to those students. I can't even imagine living through that sort of devastation. She is in my thoughts. I hope she can continue to be so strong.

  2. Thanks for sharing that Sara. Amazing. I will keep your friend, who, incidentally has a lot of the characteristics of this blog's host, in my prayers.

    Hope you are well.