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Quakes in southwest China kill dozens, damage 20,000 homes

A series of earthquakes shook the mountainous region of southwestern China, killing at least 50 people and damaging 20,000 homes. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

Updated at 1:30 a.m. ET: Rescuers in southwestern China tried on Saturday to reach remote communities rocked by back-to-back earthquakes that killed at least 80 people and damaged tens of thousands of buildings, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Two shallow 5.6 magnitude earthquakes hit the mountainous region on Friday in Yunnan province near the border with Guizhou province about 210 miles north of Yunnan's capital, Kunming.

The first temblor came at 11:19 a.m. (11:19 p.m. ET) and the second one about 45 minutes later, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

China Earthquake Networks Center put the magnitude of the first quake at 5.7 and said that more than 60 tremors have shaken the region since then, according to the China Daily report.

The epicenter was traced to Luozehe town, the report said.

More than 100,000 people have been evacuated from homes in the quake region and at least 20,000 houses were damaged or destroyed, it said, citing officials.

State media reported that Premier Wen Jiabao would travel to the stricken area, as he has often done in past disasters. 

President Hu Jintao called for disaster relief to be dispatched to the area while attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in the Russian city of Vladivostok.

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Calls to police stations and hospitals in Yiliang on Friday went unanswered, but a worker at No. 2 Renmin Hospital in Zhaotong city said medical staff were busy treating the injured.

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"We have admitted injured people, but don't have an overall number yet, and we can't comment without government approval," he told Reuters, declining to give his name.


Soldiers carry children as locals follow them toward a safer area after two earthquakes hit Zhaotong, Yunnan province, China, on Friday.

Buildings in China's less developed regions are often thrown up with little regard for construction standards, making them susceptible to earthquakes.

Footage from state broadcaster CCTV showed boulder-covered roadways, abandoned cars and black smoke pouring from buildings.

"The hardest part of the rescue now is traffic. Roads are blocked and rescuers have to climb the mountains to reach hard-hit villages," said Li Fuchun, an official from Luozehe, speaking to Xinhua news agency.

The death toll may rise as rescuers reach villages cut off by landslides, the news agency said.

Structures prone to collapse
Many structures in the area are built with mud and timber, making them more prone to collapse, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

"On the other hand, extricating people trapped in these structures may be easier than from under concrete/brick homes, meaning that there could be many more injuries proportionate to the number of deaths," it said.

In 2008, about 87,600 people were killed in the southwestern province of Sichuan when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit. Many of the victims died in the rubble of homes and schools built without adequate steel reinforcement.

A 6.9 magnitude earthquake in April 2010 killed nearly 3,000 people in a remote part of western Qinghai province, devastating much of Yushu county, where many displaced by the disaster still live in tents.

Quakes with an epicenter less than 70 km (42 miles) below the surface are considered shallow and can cause significant damage, even at lower magnitudes.

Christchurch, the largest city in New Zealand's South Island, is still recovering from a 3-mile-deep quake measuring 6.3 which killed 182 people in February 2011.

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