MIANYANG, China - Evacuees hauled mattresses and carts down from temporary camps in the hills yesterday after Chinese authorities declared that an earthquake-formed lake drained the day before was no longer a flood threat.
People in Mianyang, the largest urban area directly threatened by Tangjiashan lake, were setting up tents along city sidewalks, confident the flood threat had passed.
Soldiers helped people carry mattresses and carts as motorized vehicles passed by, loaded with plastic stools and bottled water.
Authorities had earlier evacuated 250,000 people out of concern that the lake, formed when landslides blocked a river above the destroyed town of Beichuan, would burst its sides. The lake was the largest of 30 created by the quake.
Although they remained homeless, residents of Mianyang said the conditions closer to home were far superior to those in the hastily erected camps in the hills where some had been living for almost two weeks.
"Life wasn't so good up there," said street sweeper Zhao Shuping, 46. "When it rained the water didn't drain and sometimes it reached up to our ankles."
On the eve of the one-month anniversary of the May 12 quake that killed nearly 70,000 people, soldiers, medical workers and politicians gathered in Beijing's Great Hall of the People to hear emotional testimonials about the massive aid effort.
The event was organized by the Communist Party's propaganda department and broadcast live on state television, underscoring the government's emphasis on positive coverage amid a long and daunting recovery effort.
Even as people headed back to the city of Mianyang, life was far from normal. Many residents were still sleeping outdoors because of damage to their apartments or fear of the aftershocks that continue to shake the region.
Large numbers of businesses were closed, some with sandbags stacked at their entrances to guard against floodwaters. The city's Fu Jiang River was running high and fast.
But senior military leaders said the lake no longer posed a threat.
To speed its drainage, soldiers and armed police had worked round-the-clock for nine days to dig a 1,600-foot-long sluice to release the lake's rising water levels, said Senior Col. Wen Zhixiong. They blasted away boulders and debris with dynamite, bazookas and recoilless guns.
On Tuesday, churning waters poured through the sluice and engulfed low-lying, empty towns but spared larger areas downstream.
"As of June 10, Tangjiashan quake lake is no longer considered dangerous," Wen, deputy director general for the Operations Bureau of the People's Armed Police Force, told reporters.