CHENGDU, China – A powerful aftershock destroyed tens of thousands of homes in central China on Sunday, killing six people and straining recovery efforts from the country’s worst earthquake in three decades. More than 500 others were injured.
Meanwhile, soldiers rushed with explosives to unblock a debris-clogged river threatening to flood homeless quake survivors.
The fresh devastation came after a magnitude 6.0 aftershock – among the most powerful recorded since the initial May 12 quake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The China National Seismic Network said the aftershock was the strongest of dozens in the nearly two weeks after the disaster.
Some 71,000 homes that had survived the original quake were leveled, and another 200,000 were in danger of collapse from the aftershock that caused office towers to sway in Beijing, 800 miles away.
Before the aftershock, the Cabinet said the confirmed death toll from the disaster had risen to 62,664, with another 23,775 people missing. Premier Wen Jiabao has warned the number of dead could surpass 80,000.
A mudslide caused by the aftershock blocked a road, but Xinhua said no serious landslides were reported.
Previous landslides loosened by the quake jammed rivers across the disaster area, creating 35 new lakes that placed 700,000 survivors in jeopardy of floods, Vice Minister of Water Resources E Jingping told reporters in Beijing.
The biggest concern was the new Tangjiashan lake in Beichuan county, where some 1,800 police and soldiers hiked with 22 pounds of explosives each to blast through debris, according to Xinhua.
About 20,000 people have been evacuated from the disaster area due to the flood risk, and the total relocated could rise to 100,000, said Liu Ning, chief engineer at the Ministry of Water Resources.
The ministry also said 69 dams in Sichuan were in danger of collapse from quake damage, but reservoirs have been drained to lessen the risk. Authorities have said the world’s largest water project – the Three Gorges dam, located about 350 miles east of the epicenter – was not damaged.
More than 15 million homes were destroyed in the disaster, and the Chinese government has appealed for tents to help shelter survivors.
Meanwhile, one of two pandas missing since the quake from a major preserve for the endangered animals in Wolong, near the epicenter, was sighted Sunday, Xinhua said. The panda, named Xixi, disappeared before staff could reach it but was believed safe, the report said.
The pandas’ home at the world-famous Wolong reserve was badly damaged in the quake, and five staff members were killed.