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China Watches And Waits For Lakes To Flood

Villages in the path of an earthquake-created lake that threatens to burst stood empty Monday after police and soldiers ordered thousands of people to evacuate.

But as others had rushed for higher ground Sunday, the Liu family sat at home, watching news of a possible massive flood in their area and sipping tea. A warning, spray-painted outside their door, marked a flood line just level with their toes. Armed police had told them to leave.

"We're waiting until the last moment," said Liu Zhenyang, 35, a farmer. "Then we'll run to the hills."

A disaster-weary China was trying to evacuate 200,000 people from the path of the Tongkou River, which has swelled to near bursting after last month's earthquake blocked it with a landslide. But after weeks of chaos and uncertainty, not everyone was in a hurry to be uprooted again.

Whole villages along the river were empty and silent, sealed off by men in camouflage uniforms and bright orange life vests. Deadlines to leave varied from noon to sunset. No one knew when, or even if, the lake would burst. A new channel to drain off the swelling river had just been completed, but it was too soon to know if it was working.

In the village of Jiuling, the last residents rolled up their tents and departed Sunday in a tractor full of green beans.

"The army came this morning. They told us to leave immediately," Yue Chengdi, a 58-year-old farmer, said. But he'd wanted to check his crops first.

Soldiers patrolled the empty, shattered lanes in groups of four. A tent had collapsed in the rush to leave, with playing cards scattered in the dust.

Yue walked to the edge of the river and pointed back toward the main road running south toward Sichuan province's capital, Chengdu. All the fields before the road could be flooded, including his own.

"There's nothing we can do," he said. "The government will repay us." He has never lived anywhere but here.

The quake killed at least 69,000 and left millions homeless.

Not even survivors are safe: A search was underway for a military helicopter that crashed a day earlier near the epicenter, Wenchuan, carrying 14 people injured in the quake and five crew, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.

The threat of earthquake-formed lakes bursting has complicated rescue efforts and uprooted thousands, even those whose homes had survived the quake itself.

The Lius' home in Qinglian was fine. But his family, about 10 members in all, has no tent for their quake lake evacuation. "That's the main problem, the lack of tents," Liu said. "The government said there were no more. But we understand."

The uncertainty of when - or even if - the flood waters might come created some reluctance to leave. Some were ready to outrun, outbike or outdrive any wall of water. Xia Chengyi bicycled by, saying he got an hour's permission to come back and feed the pigs of 13 families.

"We have a car. If the water comes, we'll run for it," said 59-year-old Yang Xiufu, his grandson on his lap. "Such trouble! We don't know when the water is coming."

Two police officers took turns posing for photos in front of an empty plaza dedicated to the long-ago famous poet Li Bai, who died of drowning. The poet's former home nearby, judging by the police blockade, would be flooded.

On top of nearby Taohuashan, or Peach Blossom Mountain, hundreds of families were waiting to see if their homes below would be swept away. People said the government would warn everyone with sirens and firecrackers if the lake burst. Clusters of blue relief tents were set high on the hillsides.

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