'A killer storm but no one warned us'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 July, 2012, 12:00am


Hao Tianqiao considers himself lucky to have escaped with his life from the heaviest rainstorm to hit the capital in decades.

'We heard there was going to be rain, but we had no idea it could rain so heavily or cause so much damage,' said the 45-year-old farmer from a village in the Fangshan district of Beijing.

The mountainous area received as much as 46cm of rain and bore the brunt of the storm that inundated the city at the weekend with downpours lasting for 16 hours.

As the city continues to recover from devastating floods, Hao and many other villagers are most bitter about the lack of warning given before the storm.

'I barely survived the worst rainstorm I've ever seen, and I've suffered huge economic losses,' he said. 'I really don't understand why the authorities failed to alert us and organise an evacuation like they once did a few years ago.'

When the flash flood hit at about 4pm on Saturday, Hao and his wife had barely enough time to seek shelter at a friend's house in the hills, where he watched his home and nearly all of his belongings, including his car, being swept away by floodwaters.

A 75-year-old woman also lamented that local cadres did not warn them about the impending flood as they normally do.

As of yesterday - four days after the start of the worst storm since records were kept in 1951 - the extent of the devastation had yet to be fully revealed, as Xinhua reported that officials were still tallying the number of dead and identifying remains in the mountainous area.

Meanwhile, the official death toll of 37 had not been updated since Sunday, despite fresh reports of more bodies found and rife online rumours about the toll. Caixin Media reported online that at least 10 more bodies were found in Fangshan this week.

Compounding the dire situation, meteorologists issued a fresh warning yesterday morning about another rainstorm that was expected last night. This prompted wary officials and residents to take precautions. Although the expected rain was considerably less than the recent deluge, the meteorologists warned that it could put flood-hit areas at greater risk of landslides.

The rumours prompted censors to take action, deleting online speculation about deaths, criticism of the authorities and even general accounts of the storm. Other comments included questions about the city's disaster-response system and notoriously reckless expansion efforts.

Even some officials admitted that the government had moved too slowly in addressing the widespread criticism, especially the lack of an updated death toll.

Wang Hui, head of the municipal government's press office, was quoted by Qianlong.com as saying that, because of Beijing's size, 'it is definitely not easy to govern'.

However, Wang was defensive about the government's issuance of storm warnings and its rescue operations. 'After battling the Sars outbreak [in 2003], the municipal government knows all too well about the importance of transparency, and I don't think the government will cover up the real death toll,' she said.

Wang confirmed that more bodies had been found but said the delay in updating the toll was because of difficulties in identifying the bodies.

Fangshan district government head Qi Hong also confirmed that the local authorities were revising the death toll.

Speaking on state television late on Tuesday, Qi said Saturday's storm destroyed 8,200 homes and more than 50 bridges, and caused estimated losses of 5 billion yuan (HK$6.07 billion) in Fangshan alone. He said the death toll and losses were significant and were being tallied.