Death toll rises as Beijing battles to recover from flood

A collapsed house on the bank of the Kumanoue river in the city of Ukiha on after heavy flooding on July 18. (Kazuhiro Nogi, AFP)

A collapsed house on the bank of the Kumanoue river in the city of Ukiha on after heavy flooding on July 18. (Kazuhiro Nogi, AFP)

The waters that surged through the village of Louzishui on the outskirts of Beijing fell almost as abruptly as they had arrived. Under the blazing sun, the rubble left behind was dry enough to allow a cluster of crouching mourners to burn offerings of paper money for the dead.

"My husband was washed away while he was driving," said one middle-aged woman. A few feet away, five cars lay crushed, half-filled with mud, windscreens smashed and doors twisted by the force of the torrent that swept through the village on Beijing's south-west outskirts on Saturday night.

At least 37 died in the capital when the heaviest rains in over six decades inundated it, causing 10-billion yuan (R14-billion) of damage.
Officials said 25 drowned in the city, six were killed in house collapses, one was hit by lightning and five were electrocuted by toppled power lines.

Fifteen more were killed and 19 are missing in neighbouring Hebei province, according to the state news agency Xinhua, and at least 24 have died in storms elsewhere across the country. While deep floods claimed lives even in the centre of Beijing, the rural Fangshan district bore the brunt of the disaster, with 46.7cm of rain falling overnight.

"I saw an empty car sweep by – then five [more] with people inside," said He Ping in Louzishui. "You could hear people shouting out but we couldn't do anything because the current was so fast." The first one, he said, contained a young woman. "She was looking up, saying 'Help!' But in a few seconds she was swept past."

He's father had told him of a great disaster in 1939, he said; but he had never seen floods approaching the scale of these in his 51 years in the village. He and others said a 10-year-old boy had also been drowned as the waters surged to a depth of two metres.

A young neighbour showed the grazes covering her arms and legs as she recounted her escape. The water had been just above ankle deep when she reached her car and grabbed the door handle. "Then a huge wave came. People grabbed me but they could only grab my head and the water almost washed me away. I was terrified," she said.

The devastation in some areas suggests that the final death toll could grow. At least three stretches of an expressway were clogged with cars still submerged in water and mud; in Zhaoxindian, three dozen vehicles could be seen and more were thought to be entirely covered.

As night fell, hundreds of soldiers armed with shovels were adding their labour to that of the water pumps. But one man, pointing to a taxi rooflight that was all that could be seen of his vehicle, said he and others had fled the road as waters rose on Saturday night; he had heard of only six who were missing.

In villages, residents said they had escaped to higher ground or clambered onto rooftops as the waters rose. In the worst hit areas, the downpour and flash floods flattened crops, uprooted trees, toppled walls, tore up iron fences and crumbled roads. In one spot, railway tracks floated over empty space, their sleepers and beds washed away.

Other areas seemed entirely unscathed by the waters that had immersed them. Some residents were even taking advantage of the floods: on what had been a roadside verge, men in sodden trousers fished with nets, sharpened sticks and plastic beer crates for the foot-long fish that had escaped nearby farms.

Alerted to danger
Despite their cheer, there was widespread anger. Some said the government should have alerted residents to the danger earlier while others asked whether a city that has invested billions in flashy additions to its infrastructure had neglected more basic concerns.

While some suggested any drainage system would have struggled to cope with such heavy rain, even articles in state media acknowledged that Beijing's sewers were in dire need of an overhaul. "If so much chaos can be triggered in Beijing, the capital of the nation, problems in urban infrastructure of many other places can only be worse," said a commentary in Monday's Global Times newspaper. "In terms of drainage technology, China is decades behind developed societies."

Wang Hui, a spokesperson for Beijing city government, told the Wall Street Journal internet users were right to suggest the sewer system was not equipped for the storm, adding: "We need to strengthen this area."

Those already hit, like Yang Fengzhuan, had other priorities. While relatives hosed down her yard, inches of mud still coated the floors of her home. Yang said the flood – which stopped just short of her fish tank and Mao poster – had left her family without running water or electricity, but that they had nowhere else to go. "They say it's going to rain again this week," she added anxiously. – © Guardian News and Media 2012

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