BEIJING — A strong earthquake shook a mountainous, steep-sloped area in southwestern China on Monday, and local government agencies said Tuesday morning that at least 65 people had been killed and more than 250 others were injured. At least 12 people were said to be missing.
The full extent of the damage remained unclear, however, as the quake damaged communications in the remote, isolated region. In a sign that damage might be heavy, Xi Jinping, China’s leader, personally ordered that the government “spare no effort to rescue the affected people,” state television announced Monday evening.
The China Earthquake Networks Center initially estimated the quake, which struck shortly after noon, had a magnitude of 6.6, but it later revised that upward to 6.8. The epicenter was fairly shallow — about 10 miles below the Earth’s surface — and shallow earthquakes often produce more damage than those far underground.
The epicenter was in Luding County, a remote area with many ethnic Tibetans in the southwestern corner of Sichuan province, close to that province’s borders with Tibet to the west and Yunnan province to the south. The U.S. Geological Service gave the precise location of the epicenter as several miles east of the Dadu River, which runs through a series of rapids and past small towns in a steep-flanked valley.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences announced Tuesday morning that one of the dead was a graduate student at the academy’s alpine ecosystems research station, located near the epicenter. Three more people there were injured when the building was damaged, and 14 others were unhurt, the academy said.
State television said that the province had evacuated 50,000 people after the earthquake and sent 6,500 relief workers. A landslide blocked a tributary of the Dadu River, potentially causing water to start backing up behind the fallen debris.
Some of those evacuated were downstream of the landslide, state media said, as teams were sent to assess the problem. Local authorities also checked hydroelectric dams in the area but did not immediately find damage, according to a report from Southern Weekend, a large Chinese media outlet.
Sichuan province, where many rivers run down steep valleys, has long been a leading center of hydroelectric power in China, although a severe drought this summer has hurt power output.
Satellite maps indicate a topography at and near the epicenter somewhat similar to the area of northern Sichuan province where a much more powerful earthquake struck less than three months before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. That earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.9, killed at least 69,000 people, including thousands of children who died when their schools collapsed.
Many landslides blocked steep mountain valleys and roads during the 2008 earthquake. Relief workers needed several days to reach some communities where people had been buried alive.
The Chinese army dropped 15 paratroopers into one isolated area, but deaths and injuries among these troops as they fell into dense trees prompted the government to refrain from further such efforts. Those difficulties helped persuade China to undertake a large program to import helicopters and to start building many more of its own helicopters.
The earthquake Monday is the latest in a series of troubles to afflict Sichuan province in the past month. Local authorities locked down the province’s huge capital, Chengdu, with 21 million people, on Thursday in an attempt to control a COVID-19 outbreak.
From late June to late August, the province also endured its worst heat wave on record, and the usual summer rains failed to arrive. The area’s severe drought not only parched farms but left so little water in rivers that the province’s huge hydroelectric dams could not generate nearly as much electricity as usual.
That led to the closure of many factories for nearly two weeks in late August, as well as blackouts that left residents without electricity for air conditioning as temperatures repeatedly soared past 100 degrees. Some rain finally reached the province last week, enough to cause flash floods as the water ran quickly off dry fields and hillsides but not enough to end the drought.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.