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Mass rescue, evacuations underway as torrential rains flood northern China — Radio Free Asia

Jan 12, 2024

Residents are evacuated through floodwaters in Zhuozhou in northern China's Hebei province, south of Beijing, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. Credit: Andy Wong/AP

A woman carries her pet dogs as residents are evacuated in Zhuozhou in northern China's Hebei province, south of Beijing, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. Credit: Andy Wong/AP

Heavy rains inundate a town in Zhuozhou, Baoding city, in northern China’s Hebei province on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. Credit: Jade Gao/AFP

Garbage piles up in a river after heavy rains on the outskirts of Beijing between the city and Hebei province, on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. Credit: Jade Gao/AFP

People sort items outside a damaged supermarket in the aftermath of Typhoon Doksuri, in Beijing, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. Credit: Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Flooding collapses a bridge in Beijing, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. Credit: Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Floodwaters inundate farmland and homes near Tazhao village in Zhuozhou, Hebei province, China, Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. Credit: cnsphoto via Reuters

A car washed away by floodwaters is seen in the Mentougou district on the outskirts of Beijing, Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. Credit: Ng Han Guan/AP

A traditional gate is inundated by floodwaters in the Miaofengshan area on the outskirts of Beijing, Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. Credit: Ng Han Guan/AP

At least 20 people have died and hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated, as torrential downpours continue to batter northern China on Wednesday, as the Chinese capital saw its heaviest rainfall since records began 140 years ago.

Nearly one million people have been evacuated from danger zones in Beijing and neighboring Hebei province, as well as in the northern province of Shanxi, according to state media reports cited by Agence France-Presse.

Rainstorms linked to Storm Doksuri, a former super typhoon, dumped hundreds of millimeters of rain daily on the capital and Hebei province over the past four days, state media reported, sending torrential floods along local river systems, including Beijing's Yongding River.

"This is the Yongding River," says a resident over a clip of a torrent of fast-flowing flood water that stretches as far as the eye can see. "Normally, there's hardly any water in it -- in fact it often dries up entirely."

"They said it was a once-in-100 years event, then two days later we get more rainstorms," reads a comment on another video clip of the 865 kilometer-long Yongding River, which sweeps through Beijing's western suburbs and Fengtai district.

"The rains that have hit Beijing have been more than anyone could have imagined."

"Stay safe -- stay away from riverbanks during flooding!" warns a report from the China News Network, with more footage of swollen floodwaters in northern China.

"The New Lugouqiao bridge has been closed, as the flood sluices are opened to allow the water to disperse," it said. "The Fengtai government has refuted rumors of the collapse of the Lugouqiao bridge, saying that it was the Xiaoqinghe Bridge right next to it [that collapsed]."

According to a clip posted by Beijing Satellite TV to Weibo in mid-July, the river has dams and reservoirs all along its length, roughly every two kilometers. Just two weeks before Typhoon Doksuri hit northern China, the footage showed vast expanses of dry sand all along the riverbed – a stark contrast to the raging torrents in the wake of the typhoon.

Death toll questioned

A resident of Beijing's Fangshan district who gave only the surname Liu said she was highly skeptical of the official death toll, citing widespread flooding of single-story buildings.

"A relative of mine in the hills near Mentougou had their house entirely washed away," she said. "The government is saying that 11 people died [in Beijing alone], which I don't think is likely."

"The Xiaoqinghe bridge collapsed and all of those cars went into the river, and they're saying nobody died? Do you believe that?"

Liu said local people were having trouble getting a phone signal after local base stations were flooded.

"All of the routes are totally cut off here, and we can't go out," she said.

Social media footage showed turbulent floodwaters battering a bridge in Mentougou, a hilly area on the western edge of Beijing, while footage uploaded to the social media platform Sina Weibo showed Yongding River floodwaters rushing past Beijing's Capital Iron and Steel Works, which remained dry.

A local resident told the Global Times newspaper that local people had struggled to evacuate everyone in time, while the paper said "many houses" had been washed away.

"From the moment it started raining, we activated the emergency plan to evacuate all villagers," the paper quoted the resident as saying. "But the floods came more quickly. We didn't complete the evacuation until Monday night."

Meanwhile, some took to Weibo to tell the world about Hebei's Zhuozhou city, which many said had been sacrificed to keep Beijing relatively flood-free, receiving floodwaters diverted to protect the capital.

“I‘m 39 years old and I never thought I'd live to see this. Floodwater is three or four meters deep in the city streets, which are totally under water," a Zhuozhou resident said in a clip uploaded by Phoenix TV.

Farmland to swampland

Weibo user @Eagle_of_God_5zn posted a video clip of dark red muddy waters surging through a village, with the comment: "It's as if tens of thousands of horses were galloping through the streets of the village, and the farmland in the suburbs has turned into a swampland."

"The people of Zhuozhou have sacrificed too much for this disaster relief effort," the user wrote.

Villagers reportedly clashed with police near Zhuozhou city amid public opposition to the release of floodwaters into land around their village, a move that many saw as sacrificing Zhuozhou to save Beijing, according to a clip uploaded to the citizen journalist X account “Mr. Li is not your teacher.”

The BBC's China correspondent Stephen McDonell said via his X account that Zhuozhou was suffering "an ongoing emergency."

"#Beijing has canceled its red alert status," McDonell wrote. "Water levels have receded all over the city. In #Hebei Province, the town of Zhuozhou is still struggling with the ongoing emergency, after flood waters were diverted there to take the pressure off the capital."

Some residents of the city complained that they weren't given enough notice of the diversion.

Video footage filmed by a resident of Hebei's Zhuozhou city and uploaded to Sina Weibo showed areas of streets and parking lots under muddy water.

Another clip from the same city showed flood waters up to the eaves of single-storey buildings, while in another, people are seen in buoyancy jackets, paddling an inflatable raft up a broad city street.

Meanwhile, social media users bemoaned the flooding of a book depository in Zhouzhou, which is a major center for China's publishing industry.

Highlighting heroism

Social media footage from a book warehouse in the city showed muddy waters flowing through the building, with hundreds of books swirling around and floating away on the torrent.

Sina Weibo user @Babur drew a parallel between the loss of the books and ongoing censorship of the publishing industry under ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.

"The submerged book warehouses in Zhuozhou are basically emblematic of the amount of room that has been given to cultural and intellectual sectors in recent years," the user commented.

Elsewhere in Hebei, a video clip showed cars jammed into city streets at 1.00 a.m. in Baoding city, as residents tried to leave the city following an evacuation order, according to the person filming.

State media coverage focused on the sheer amount of rain, and on footage of heroic rescue operations, including the hoisting of a man out of a car as it rolled over in floodwater, the rescue of women, children and a baby by inflatable boat, and the efforts of residents to deliver food to stranded people or rescue workers, despite the floods.

"Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday demanded all-out search and rescue for people missing or trapped by floods and geological disasters," state news agency Xinhua reported.

"It is crucial to ensure medical treatment for the injured and provide aid and comfort to the families of the deceased," the agency quoted Xi as saying.

China has earmarked 110 million yuan (U.S.$15.43 million) for flood prevention and disaster relief work in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Emergency Management said on Tuesday.

The funds will be used to support emergency rescue work and relief work for people affected by floods, the ministries said.

"Beijing is intensifying disaster relief efforts by employing People's Liberation Army helicopters to airdrop essential supplies and transfer stranded residents," the Global Times reported.

Translated with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie.

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Death toll questionedFarmland to swamplandHighlighting heroism