The papers on dangerous buildings that compounded the death tolls of recent natural disasters.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
May 25 2008 6:48 AM

The Great Fall of China

The New York Timesleads with Chinese parents' concerns that badly built, uninspected schools resulted in the unnecessary deaths of thousands of their children in the earthquake that shook China's Sichuan Province two weeks ago. The Washington Postleads with another story about dangerous buildings killing kids: Trailers used by FEMA to house Hurricane Katrina victims contained high levels of formaldehyde, a cancer-causing chemical found in the low-quality wood used to build the trailers quickly. The Los Angeles Timesleads with an "upending" of the American economy—a boom for industries that were previously believed to be fading, even as the technology and finance sectors face large-scale layoffs.

Schools in the Sichuan Province seemed to have borne a disproportionate amount of the destruction in the earthquake that rocked China earlier this month, the NYT reports in a massive piece that gets most of the paper's front-page real estate. Examining the decimated Xinjian Primary School in Dujiangyang, the article notes that the buildings surrounding the school were by comparison relatively unharmed. Turns out, the school had a long history of poor construction—parents, many of whom worked at a nearby cement factory, knew that Xinjian was unsafe when it opened, and a wing of the school was demolished in 1992 because it was so far below standards. A team of structural engineers and "earthquake experts" was asked by the NYT to examine detailed photos of the destruction, and "concluded, independently, that inadequate steel reinforcement, or rebar, was used in the concrete columns supporting the school. They also found that the school's precast, hollow concrete slab floors and walls did not appear to be securely joined together." The 7.9-scale quake was vicious enough to damage even well-built structures, but schools, affected by lack of funding and the Chinese government's helter-skelter building-code enforcements, paid an especially high price. Parents of the dead students are beginning to stage demonstrations and demand that the government be held responsible for the carnage.

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FEMA officials ordered $2.7 billion worth of mobile housing for the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the WP reports, "many of them using a single page of specifications." The 25 lines of specifications made no mention of safety requirements, and the trailers, which were supplied at an unusual speed, led to a public health crisis affecting as many as 300,000 people. Dangerously high levels of formaldehyde, a cancer-causing chemical present in some of the trailers' wood, led to severe illness and several deaths among the flood victims. Many of the injured are joining a class-action lawsuit against the trailer makers and the federal government. "Weak government contracting, sloppy private construction, a surge of low-quality wood imports from China and inconsistent regulation all contributed to the crisis," the piece summarizes, further noting that the situation is now one colossal government blame game, the cost of which "will not be known for years."

The LAT leads with the "twin turns" of the American economy—a boom in the heartland's industrial sector, spurred by global industrialization, as the financial and technologies sectors face a steady downturn. These trends are "letting once-struggling behemoths such as U.S. Steel Corp. put modern marvels such as Microsoft Corp. to shame," the piece reports, noting that U.S. Steel's stock has risen 1,000 percent "in recent years." In national economic terms, the industrial boom is only bittersweet news; it's pushing up incomes but not creating jobs. Thus, the spillover into other sectors is likely to be limited, meaning "the economy as a whole will have to keep relying on high tech and services if it is to experience new growth in income and employment."

The NYT off-leads a piece about the American method of selecting judges by popular vote. Eighty-seven percent of state judges are elected, and 39 states elect at least some of their judges. The stage is set by the story of a Wisconsin judge election, in which the candidates spent $5 million on their respective campaigns and the winner ran false television advertisements before taking 51 percent of the vote. The article contrasts America's judicial votes with France's nonpartisan, "much more rigorous" method of testing and selecting independent judges. *

The weekend columnists are all over Sen. Hillary Clinton's "assassination gaffe," in which she referenced the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy to point out that Democratic primaries often drag into June. WP style reporter Libby Copeland is not amused, writing that Clinton's allusion to the murder of a candidate "almost sounds like wishful thinking." The NYT's Maureen Dowd is slightly more inclined to take Clinton at her word, helpfully suggesting that she simply meant to say she's staying in the race because "stuff happens."

Correction, June 13, 2008: The original version of this piece improperly accused the New York Times of editorializing in its story on judge selection methods and incorrectly attributed a quote from a source in the Times story to the author. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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