Draining begins at quake-formed lake

Water poured from a massive lake formed by China's deadly earthquake in a carefully engineered diversion Saturday to ease the threat of flooding for a million people in the sprawling disaster zone.

After two weeks of frantic work by engineers and soldiers, waters flowed into the hurriedly built spillway, but at a rate too slow to cause the lake's level to drop. Military engineers dynamited boulders and soldiers used excavators to deepen the channel to accelerate the flow, state media said.

“The lake was still dangerous despite the draining,” the official Xinhua News Agency quoted Minister of Water Resources Chen Lei as saying late Saturday.

The Tangjiashan lake, created when a landslide dammed the Tongkou River, has become a priority for a government, hoping to head off another catastrophe as it cares for millions left homeless by the May 12 quake that killed nearly 70,000 people. More than 1.3 million people live downriver from Tangjiashan; 250,000 have been evacuated.

News that the draining had started sent ripples of anticipation through some of the cramped evacuation centers that have sprouted in hilly Sichuan province.

“I wish the water would hurry up so we can go home,” said Wang Jing, a 25-year-old nurse, packed with an estimated 9,500 others into the branch campus of the Sichuan Music School in Mianyang city. “My house is fine.”

Government experts, quoted by state media, downplayed the threat of imminent flooding, saying Tangjiashan's landslide-created dam should hold. But state media and officials estimated it will be a week before the evacuees could return home, even if all goes well.

“We can't have any more deaths,” said Liu Xulong, a propaganda official in Mianyang, the main city in the area. Liu was helping out at the city's Jiuzhou Stadium, a refugee camp where 4,000 people, mostly from devastated Beichuan County, remain nearly four weeks after the quake.

The official death toll crept Saturday to 69,134 people, with 17,681 still missing.