BEIJING — At least three dozen villages and towns in southwest China were still cut off from rescuers Thursday as tens of thousands of soldiers and emergency workers struggled against impassable roads and barriers of concrete and brick to reach the 40,000 people officials say are still buried in the rubble or missing after the massive earthquake.
With the official death toll raised to more than 19,500, and expected to rise further, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao dispatched at least an additional 90 helicopters to the quake-battered Sichuan Province and made a national plea for heavy equipment and simple tools like hammers and shovels.
The official Xinhua news agency reported that the death toll could reach as high as 50,000, quoting rescue headquarters, Reuters reported.
Chinese soldiers walked along a partially collapsed mountain road in Wenchuan County as they made their way to the earthquake epicenter on Wednesday. More Photos >
Local officials in Sichuan also issued a radio appeal for food, water and heavy machinery, warning that a looming humanitarian crisis threatened thousands of survivors who have little access to fresh supplies, clean water and shelter.
On Thursday afternoon, officials from the largest Chinese power company warned that two dams were at risk of crumbling, threatening more than 100 people still trapped in the ruins of a hydropower plant in the town of Huaneng.
The dam, officials said on state-run television, could collapse “at any time.”
As a series of aftershocks rattled the area, officials warned that an additional 391 dams were in “dangerous condition,” posing an imminent risk to thousands of people downstream, according to the National Development and Reform Commission.
A report in the Beijing Times said that a dam along the Jian River in Beichuan County was also in a fragile state.
“There are major safety issues right now with the reservoirs, hydropower stations and lakes in the earthquake zone,” Chen Lei, a government minister, said in the statement on the agency’s Web site.
“The area has numerous reservoirs and lots of damage, and the extent of the danger is unknown,” the statement said.
Overall, officials said that more than half of the region’s 20 million people have been affected by the earthquake, which struck on Monday afternoon with a magnitude of 7.9.
Officials raised the number of injured to 65,000, with more than 1,600 of them in serious condition, Xinhua, the official news agency, reported.
Relief experts said that time was quickly running out for those still buried in the rubble of collapsed buildings, including hundreds of students and teachers trapped in several schools throughout the region.
For the first time since the earthquake struck, rescue workers cleared a major road leading into the hard-hit area around Shifang, enabling heavy equipment to gain access. The Associated Press reported that soldiers in Shifang could be seen bundling bodies in white sheets and burying them in a mass grave sprinkled with lime.
Officials said that more than 130,000 emergency personnel, including soldiers and medics, were working in the quake zone. The government also said that it planned to send 1,300 rail cars with supplies to the region.
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