Heavy Rain Kills At Least 37 in Beijing

Rainfall of up to 18 inches brought death and disruption to Beijing over the weekend. From Andrew Jacobs at The New York Times:

The heaviest rainfall in six decades caused widespread havoc in this capital over the weekend, killing at least 37 people and forcing the evacuation of 50,000 others from waterlogged neighborhoods and villages, according to the state news media.

More than six inches of rain fell overnight Saturday into Sunday, collapsing roofs, downing power lines and turning highway underpasses into ponds that engulfed scores of cars and buses. About 80,000 passengers at Beijing Capital International Airport were stranded overnight after fierce thunderstorms forced the cancellation of 500 flights, the state-run Xinhua news agency said.

China Real Time Report, QQ.com, the BBC and Beijing Cream have all posted photo galleries of the floods, with Beijing Cream also sharing video of firefighters and civilians struggling to rescue stranded drivers while drunken foreigners frolicked elsewhere.

Fangshan, to the southwest of the city, was hit hardest. The heaviest rain there in 500 years forced over 20,000 from their homes and flooded a major expressway, stranding hundreds of passengers. Parts of Fangshan, according to Bill Bishop at Sinocism, “are so rural and poor that they make Appalachia look almost like Westchester County. Fangshan is a stark reminder of the close proximity of the first and third worlds in China, and given the topology, the deforestation and the poor infrastructure in parts of Fangshan things could really be quite bad there.” Global Times reported that mudslides had killed at least one person in the area, while floods had left many others without shelter, power or clean water. The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore later tweeted from the scene, however, that the situation there, “apart from Jingshi expressway, [is] not as bad as feared. Lots of damage, but not many victims, say locals.”

Although the weekend’s weather was exceptional, the failure of drainage infrastructure to cope with the deluge sparked widespread anger. Some accused the authorities of spending billions on cosmetic development projects while neglecting the less glamorous basics. From Josh Chin at China Real Time Report:

Among the sharpest criticisms came in the form of a series of photos, posted to Sina Weibo around midnight, contrasting Beijing’s flooded streets with images of sewer systems in other famous capitals, including Tokyo’s massive “Underground Temple” flood prevention system.

“Sewers are not a face-giving infrastructure project,” artist Li Yijia wrote in response to the images, repeating a sentiment widely expressed elsewhere on the site.

“Beijing’s glossy appearance can’t withstand the erosion of a bout of heavy rain,” wrote another Sina Weibo user. “In just a few hours, Beijing is washed back into the old days. The city government hasn’t stopped rebuilding this city, but they can’t even deal with getting waterlogged.”

A Global Times op-ed agreed that the rain “exposes holes in [China's] modernization drive”, and described the city’s lack of preparedness as “unforgivable”.

The record precipitation did expose a coarse facet of Chinese modernization. There is an unofficial but interesting criterion in judging whether a city is developed or not: After three hours of rainfall, if you walk in the street and see slow but moving traffic, roads that are slippery but not swamped, then this is generally a developed place.

For a while, China was seen as entering the ranks of developed countries. However, Chinese cities are apparently unpracticed in facing disasters such as Saturday’s torrential downpour. 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.

[…] The disaster of Saturday was particularly unforgivable, given that Beijing’s inadequate drainage system and emergency response mechanism were already exposed in the downpour on June 23, 2011.

Another target was the lack of timely warning of the disaster. From Charles Custer at Tech in Asia:

So why didn’t the Meteorological Bureau send out text warnings to Beijingers beforehand? It seems like texts would be a remarkably effective method of issuing a warning given that more than 95 percent of Beijingers own mobile phones and people are more likely to check text messages than they are to turn on the radio, watch TV, or look up weather on the web during any given day. But Bureau director Qu Xiaobo told the Beijing Morning Post that warning Beijingers by text was technologically impossible. While the Bureau does have a client for sending text-messaged weather alerts, it apparently sends just 400 text messages per minute, meaning that it’s essentially useless for warning Beijing’s population of more than 20 million.

[…] China Telecom has officially stated that there would be no technological problems with sending a weather warning text to all the Telecom subscribers in Beijing. However, company officials said, Telecom did not issue such a warning because they are not allowed to without being directed by the relevant government department.

So why didn’t the Meterological Bureau tell telecom companies to issue the warning themselves?

There were also, however, tales of city workers and police officers braving the elements to help people in trouble, with one policeman among the dead in Fangshan. Many private citizens and businesses also went to great lengths to help others, according to Stephen Chen at the South China Morning Post:

Hundreds […], including many from the Wangjing residential area near the Beijing Capital International Airport (SEHK: 0694), took to their cars in attempts to help some of an estimated 80,000 stranded travellers get home, as taxi and bus services had stopped, according to China Central Television. There were no reports online of people being charged for the rides. It was undoubtedly a dangerous offer, as almost every expressway into and out of Beijing was jammed and covered in standing water.

Several entrepreneurs stepped up in answer to cries for help, offering free shelter, drinks and food to people who were trapped on roads. Zhu Guofan, the owner of Beijing’s biggest spa franchise, Liangzi, announced on his microblog account that anyone who could not make it home on Saturday night could walk into any of the company’s 21 locations and receive free food, drinks, showers and a place to rest.

And from Tea Leaf Nation:

Of course, Weibo also became an important frontier for information sharing. Over the course of the evening, Weibo was flooded with tweets asking and giving help. Netizens tweeted weather forecasts, traffic updates and safety tips. Some even offered their apartments to those who could not get home. @书盟 is one of them. “I have a car and an apartment that can accommodate five people. I can provide food, drinks, Internet access and a change of clothes all for free.” He also tweeted his address and cell phone number.

Many said that they were moved by and proud of the love and bravery shown by citizens. Xu Xin (@徐昕), a legal scholar,comments: “I’m sleepless tonight thinking about the heavy rain, the lives lost, the injured people and the police’s rescue efforts; I’m also thinking about so many asking for help on Weibo, and so many offering their help. The spirit of Beijing is not reflected by grand, meaningless words but by the pictures of Beijing tonight. The carrier of the spirit is Weibo, on which energy of kindness is being paid forward.”