Rotarian in right place at right time after China quake
Honorary Rotarian Bill Chiang with a young earthquake survivor in Sichuan Province, China. Photo courtesy of Bill Chiang
Bill Chiang was working on his laptop the afternoon of 12 May when his 19th-floor apartment in Chengdu, China, began to shake.
"This cannot be an earthquake," he thought. "It must be shoddy construction work."
But when the building continued to sway, he quickly realized what was happening. A veteran of two earthquakes in California, USA, he ducked under a doorway and waited – and waited and waited – until the shaking stopped two minutes later.
Despite his initial fear, Chiang said he was in the right place at the right time. A charter and honorary member of the Rotary Club of San Francisco Golden Gate (Chengdu does not have a club), he, along with members of the Rotary clubs of Beijing and Shanghai, has been an integral part of Rotary-related efforts to help victims of the earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province.
Because of Rotarians’ work, ShelterBox and LifeBox , two disaster relief organizations with Rotary ties, have been able to ship aid containers to the region. ShelterBox was also able to obtain the visas required to send a disaster response team to the area.
"Bill has been great with on-the-ground organization, including providing access to interpreters, organizing transport, and all the paperwork," said Lasse Petersen, of the Rotary Club of Mounts Bay, Cornwall, England, a longtime ShelterBox team member. "When you arrive in a foreign country and don’t speak the language, finding local help is invaluable."
Chiang, who has lived all over the world, has been in Chengdu for two years volunteering for organizations that provide reconstructive surgery to children. He said he was probably the most mentally prepared person in the city when the disaster hit because of his previous earthquake experiences.
When he left his apartment after the quake ended, Chiang took bottled water, money, his passport, and a radio. Others were not so prepared. People were in the street without shoes, totally rattled and running for cover with each aftershock, he said. When he was allowed back into his undamaged building nine hours later, electricity and the Internet were still working, and only a few things in his apartment had broken.
Most of the buildings in Chengdu city are new and sustained little damage, but touring hard-hit areas elsewhere with ShelterBox team members underscored how lucky he was.
It "makes you feel what life is all about - anything can happen at any moment," he said. "I get emotional when I see children and old people who are totally emotionless, zombied out."
The most chilling image, he recalled, was a group of about 30 soldiers marching in two columns, wearing all-white clothing and masks. They were responsible for handling dead bodies. "It sent chills up my spine," he said.
Chiang is upbeat about the future, though. Before the quake, there was concern that China’s younger generation was becoming too materialistic and selfish, he said. But the disaster seems to have galvanized everyone.
" This earthquake has shown how a society can be positively impacted by people working together," he explained.
As the earthquake cleanup continues, Chiang wants to become a conduit for Rotary club and district reconstruction projects and is busy answering e-mails from Rotarians and friends from around the world interested in helping.
Chiange said he looks forward to when his Chinese friends can become Rotarians. Though there are Rotary clubs in Beijing and Shanghai, only foreign-passport holders are allowed to join until the government approves regulations for international nongovernmental organizations.
While distributing ShelterBox containers in Pengzhou, an area devastated by the quake, Chiang told an interested government official about Rotary.
"He said he wanted to be a Rotarian and asked how he could join," Chiang recalled proudly. "It was a Rotary moment."