Thursday, February 07, 2008

Update on China Weather Crisis

I received this email message yesterday. It's a broadcast email from Jenny Bowen, executive director of Half the Sky. Although I haven't asked permission to quote it, I doubt she'd mind. In fact, she'd probably appreciate the exposure. The email shows both the severity of the crisis and the strength of the response. The part about Chenzhou Social Welfare Institute (SWI) brought tears to my eyes.

By the way, for those not familiar with Chinese customs, people travel to their ancestral homes for the New Year celebration. Young people who've moved from the countryside to the big cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou for work ride trains for 24 hours or more to get home, and the entire country essentially shuts down. The storms came in the midst of this annual migration, thus complicating the problem.

Dear Friends,

Tonight is Chinese New Year’s Eve. Families across China who’ve not had to cancel their holiday plans are cozy together preparing huge feasts to greet the New Year. Although it gets harder and harder to reach anyone,we at HTS have not stopped reaching out to orphanages in central and south China that have suffered through the recent storms.

Despite the difficulties -- anyone who possibly can has gone home, all shops and offices are closed, no one answers the phone, the whole country is suddenly quiet -- we had some success today in getting the word out. In all of the six hardest-hit provinces we’ve managed to begin spreading the word, town by town, that we (and you!) are here to help. We’ve begun getting calls from directors of some of the small county-level institutions. We expect their numbers to grow over the coming days.

The weather remains bitter-cold but no serious snow is forecast now until the beginning of next week. For families in China, that’s wonderful news, as relatives make their way from house to house with greetings and treats for the new year.

For our little ones in the institutions, it’s good news too. Thanks to you and the provisions and heaters and winter clothes you’ve made possible, most will have a snug and safe holidays.

There has thankfully been only one instance so far where we felt the children were in real danger. In Chenzhou, Hunan, the subject of many recent news stories, the institution has been without power or running water for two weeks. In fact, a giant power grid was destroyed by heavy snows and the whole city has been dark for days. Yesterday in Chenzhou,11 workers died in an attempt to restore power.

We were worried about the children at the Chenzhou SWI – over 150 infants,some of whom were falling ill. Food supplies were running out and coal for heat was becoming prohibitively expensive. The SWI director was borrowing funds from caregivers to buy supplies at inflated prices. Even candles tripled in price. To complicate matters, because of the power failure, all banks were closed and the roads were closed. We were feeling pretty helpless.

I’m happy to tell you that an intrepid little group, led by my husband, Richard, is now heading home from having successfully stabilized the situation at the Chenzhou SWI. There is now at least a week’s worth of food, 2 weeks worth of coal, blankets, diapers (another group managed to drop off diapers and clothes as well and today a local farmer came by with a cart of cabbage) and plenty of money to buy what they need if they runout. Richard tells me that all they lack are 60 infant snowsuits and, assoon as the stores re-open after the holiday, the director knows where to get them. Although it’s expected to take 3-6 months for Chenzhou to fully return to normal, we’re so relieved that the children are safe and, at least for now, out of danger.

I hope to be able to tell you more of the story soon. Meanwhile, we will continue to monitor the situation in Chenzhou daily.

We will not stop reaching out to all potentially affected institutions,especially smaller ones, that we haven’t heard from yet. We’ve made a commitment to the hugely over-burdened Civil Affairs offices, that we, as a community, are going to take care of the children through these critical days, with everything we’ve got to give.

You are giving a great gift to the children in this New Year. You are also giving a great gift to me and my colleagues at Half the Sky. It is such a privilege to be empowered to help so many children in need. I feel very lucky right now!

Jenny, by the way, is an amazing woman and Half the Sky has an amazing mission: To ensure that every Chinese orphan in an institution knows the love of at least one caring adult. Jenny was recently selected one of 8 foreigners, and the only American, to carry the Olympic torch on Chinese soil later this year in a contest run by the China Daily, the official English-language newspaper.

Today was Chinese New Year, and we are now in the Year of the Rat. Gong Xi Fa Cai, or ...

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