Floods Bring Disaster to Henan

At least 33 people have died due to flooding in Henan province. Hundreds of thousands more have been displaced, millions otherwise affected, and many remain missing. 24 inches of rain fell in the provincial capital Zhengzhou on Tuesday, nearly 8 inches of which fell in a single hour. The city’s average annual precipitation total is 25 inches. Horrifying videos on social media showed passengers trapped in subway cars slowly filling with water, people and cars swept away by raging currents, and last-ditch rescue efforts across the city. Preliminary reports indicate rural areas, many of which lost internet during the storm, may have suffered even more damage. CDT Chinese has covered a number of stories related to the flood:

At CNN, Nectar Gan and Zixu Wang reported on the disaster on Line 5 of the Zhengzhou subway, where 12 people lost their lives:

In a post on microblogging site Weibo, a woman said water started to seep into the subway train soon after it came to a stop in between two stations. Subway staff had first instructed passengers to leave the train and evacuate through the tunnel, but they were soon told to turn back because there was too much floodwater ahead.

[…] “We tried to stand on the seats as much as we could, but even then, the water reached our chests in the end,” she wrote. “I was really scared, but the most terrifying thing was not the water, but the diminishing air in the carriage — as many seemed to have trouble breathing.”

[…] Eventually, she fainted due to lack of oxygen, but was later awaken by the vibration of her phone. It was a call from her mother telling her rescue was on the way. At that moment, she heard footsteps on top of the train, and firefighters started to smash open the windows to let in fresh air. She heard more rescuers arriving, and one after another, they were let out — those who fainted were sent out first, followed by women, she wrote. Her post was later deleted. It was not clear why, or by whom — and CNN has been unable to verify her account. [Source]

Anonymous internet users organized ad-hoc rescue efforts on shared documents:

Other harrowing first-person accounts related how subway passengers—including pregnant women, the elderly, and children—braved high water for hours as their oxygen supply dwindled while they waited for rescue. A statement released by the Zhengzhou subway two days after the tragedy did not offer any explanation for the decision to keep operating during the storm. At The Guardian, Helen Davidson and Vincent Ni reported on how subway officials and local official media misrepresented the progress of rescue operations:

The Henan Business Daily newspaper reported staff at one station told a man all passengers had been evacuated but had to acknowledge that wasn’t true after he started a video call with his wife who was still trapped on board a train. She told her husband the water had almost reached her neck and passengers were struggling to breathe, the report said.

[…] A widely shared WeChat article noted early contradictory statements from local state media, including that no passengers were in danger, while at the same time footage – later blocked from China’s internet – was being shared of dead bodies at Shakoulu station, including by the national state media outlet, Xinhua.

The WeChat article also noted premature declarations that the rescue mission was complete, while trapped passengers continued to post about their predicament. The article – which also questioned whether it was a man-made disaster linked to the blasting of a dam late Tuesday near the city of Luoyang – was later censored for “violating regulations”, according to a Twitter user, Matt Knight, who collected online posts. [Source]

(Knight is a journalist, formerly a China correspondent at AFP.)

Hospitals were also affected. The largest hospital in Zhengzhou lost power, sparking an intense effort to evacuate 600 sick patients. At The Washington Post, Pei Lin Wu and Rebecca Tan reported on a hospital in northwest Henan where patients and staff are stranded without provisions:

“The most, most crucial thing is that we don’t have food at the moment. We haven’t eaten since the morning,” said Li Xiqin, chief of the Gongji Hospital of Huixian city, where flooding has left her stranded on the hospital premises with 380 nursing home residents, 150 patients and 150 staff members.

She shared videos of the scene, including one showing employees wheeling bed-bound patients through muddy waters while medical supplies floated by. In another video, about a dozen staff members are shown pushing down a brick wall on the west side of the hospital campus to let water escape.

“Water, electricity and gas have all stopped,” Li said in an interview Thursday afternoon. “We’ve contacted people for materials, but we don’t know when they will arrive.” [Source]

Difficulties accessing rural areas likely portend serious destruction. Sixth Tone reported bodies on the street in rural Gongyi. Rescue efforts have been stymied by the rubble: “They won’t find my grandfather unless rescuers comb through the rubble. But they can’t even make it (to his house) because the roads are blocked and rescue vehicles can’t enter.” At The New York Times, Keith Bradsher and Steven Lee Myers reported on the flood in Mihe, a rural town outside of Zhengzhou:

In towns and villages on the outskirts of Zhengzhou, the provincial capital at the center of the disaster, residents described still more who remained unaccounted for, like the grocer and his customers. Some residents who fled their homes in Mihe, on the Sishui River and 22 miles west of downtown Zhengzhou, waited on Thursday by the side of a nearby highway for news.

[…] In Xinxiang, a city north of Zhengzhou, about 100 people were stranded on the second floor of an elementary school, according to a post on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform. Many of them were children.

[…] Many homes in Mihe, which is in a flat-bottomed valley with steep slopes of red soil, had been destroyed or badly damaged. Ms. Chen, who survived with her husband and grandchild, had fled to a nearby village.

“Now we have nothing to eat, no water to drink, no home to return to,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.” [Source]

State-media asserted that this was an unprecedented, hence unforeseeable, natural disaster. But many expressed skepticism that the damage could not have been mitigated. At The Wall Street Journal, Chun Han Wong and Jonathan Cheng reported on the efforts to turn Zhengzhou into a “sponge city”:

In recent years, municipal authorities have been implementing a program to turn Zhengzhou into a “sponge city,” an urban-development concept that focuses on using sustainable infrastructure—such as green spaces and urban wetlands—to help deal with heavy rains, store water and purify it for other uses.

[…] “The floods in Zhengzhou gave the sponge city a slap in the face, and show that man may not be able to triumph over the heavens,” a Weibo user wrote on his verified account.

He Guangwei, a former journalist, said Weibo temporarily disabled his account after he posted a series of posts questioning the government’s response to the floods, including references to Zhengzhou’s “sponge city” project and its costs. [Source]

At China Media Project, David Bandurski noted that Party media prioritized fawning coverage of Xi Jinping over reporting on the floods:

On the front page of the Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper today scenes of flooding were not to be seen at all. Instead, coverage to the right of the masthead focused on the translation into “many languages” of Xi Jinping’s speech to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. Below the masthead, the focus was on revisions to family planning law to legitimize the three-child policy.

Only on page seven did the CCP’s flagship newspaper finally offer coverage of flooding in Henan, focusing on the all-out effort, the images depicting resolute action. The headline gave nothing away: “Henan Suffers Heavy Precipitation, Departments in Many Areas Take Countermeasures: In Rescue Efforts, All Parties Going All Out” (河南遭遇强降水,多地多部门采取应对措施 抢险救援 各方全力以赴).

[…] At regional Party papers, coverage of the flood was either downplayed (usually, news of Xi’s “important instructions” only) or not visible at all. One might think that the Henan Daily, the official mouthpiece of the CCP leadership in the province most seriously impacted by the flooding, would be right on top of the story. On the paper’s website, however, the top story today was a propaganda piece for the CCP’s centennial called “A Century of Struggle, Setting Sail on a New Journey (奋斗百年路 启航新征程). This was followed by a special on Xi Jinping called “Keeping the Mandate in Mind, Advancing as Guided by the General Secretary” (牢记嘱托 沿着总书记指引的方向前进).

Did coverage of the flooding follow behind these these propaganda set pieces? No, it did not. The story that followed was about China’s first hybrid motorcycle rolling off the line in Luoyang. Next came a story about a ceremony held for the province’s first styrene project. [Source]

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