Extreme weather in China

Handan’s forgotten flood victims still bitter a month after deadly deluge

Villagers accuse local officials in Hebei city of ignoring their suffering and grievances

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 August, 2016, 12:26pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 August, 2016, 1:43pm

A month after deadly floods swept through Hebei province, people in Handan, one of the worst-hit areas, are still complaining about the way the local authorities handled the disaster, saying their suffering and grievances have largely been ignored due to the scant public and media attention they’ve received.

Scenes of destruction wrought by the flash flood on July 19 can still be seen in many parts of Handan, a prefecture-level city, with brick houses partially levelled and heaps of mud and trash inside homes and on roads yet to be cleared.

Officials said it’s time to move on with our lives despite our heartbreaking experiences
Qi Qiang, Cuilu villager

While villagers in neighbouring Xingtai who lost loved ones complain about inadequate compensation, many Handan residents are still searching for missing relatives – mostly on their own.

In the hardest hit part of Handan, the city of Wuan, where at least 30 people were killed and 29 others are listed as missing, villagers are bitter that local authorities have done little to help locate the bodies of their loves ones or to provide much-needed emergency supplies and relief materials.

The truth about heavy casualties in the neighbouring prefecture-level city of Xingtai was not made public until angry villagers blocked a main road and clashed with police in a desperate bid to protest against an alleged official cover-up and inadequate disaster relief efforts.

Flood victims in Handan say that with all the media attention focused on Xingtai, their plight has been unfairly forgotten.

Cuilu villager Qi Qiang, whose two children and mother-in-law were killed in the floods, made a trip this week to Daxian village in Xingtai, which received the most media attention.

“While Daxian villagers said they had been offered 280,000 yuan (HK$327,445) in compensation for each person killed in the floods, we are told by Handan officials that we will only get 10,000 yuan for each of our loved ones,” he said. “I simply want to know why we should be treated so differently. Are we still living in the same country and in the same province?”

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Instead of addressing their grievances, local officials in Handan had warned grief-stricken survivors against petitioning higher-level governments or expressing their grievances on social media sites, Qi and other Wuan villagers said.

“Officials said it’s time to move on with our lives despite our heartbreaking experiences,” he said. “They also warned that we would face severe punishment if we dare to continue to petition the government for redress.”

Many villagers are bitter that the provincial authorities have already held several ceremonies hailing the success of flood-relief efforts.

“Is it a bit early as most of us have still yet to receive adequate relief assistance or any compensation?” another Cuilu villager asked.

Authorities in Handan have refused to release the names of victims or give an update on the casualties. The last official death toll was released three weeks ago.

An incomplete list of the dead in Wuan compiled by the South China Morning Post showed that seven people were killed or listed as missing in Cuilu village, five in Zhangxinzhuang village, four in Majiazhuang village, four in Guyi village and two in Meiliangdian village.

Most of the casualties, including many children and old people, occurred when floodwaters burst river banks and submerged large parts of the villages, high in the mountains, without any early warnings being issued by the government.

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Guyi villager Liu Bingcheng was bitter that local officials, who often bragged about their ability to cope with disaster, had failed to prevent heavy casualties. His wife Xiao Suye, 53, son Liu Yanjie, 23, and daughter Liu Yanli, 20, were killed in the flood, while he barely survived.

When the flood hit early on the evening of July 19, Liu and his family were trying to move a refrigerator, bicycle and other valuable appliances and furniture out of his riverside convenience store, with the help of 19-year-old apprentice Bai Xuefeng, who was also swept to his death.

“The water was just ankle deep when we tried to empty the store after 5pm and we had a clear view of the river, which was rather quiet, in broad daylight,” Liu said. “But within a minute or two, it had already risen to my waist and five of us were stuck in the store, which was only made of light materials.”

The next minute the shop was washed away by the strong, murky current and they were all swept into the roaring waters.

“I managed to cling to a window frame and I knew that’s the only hope I had for survival,” he said.

The 52-year-old managed to climb out of the water more than 2km downstream, near the village of Niutou.

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“I am really lucky to get out alive, but I do not feel a single shred of happiness,” he said. “I’ve lost my wife and children forever.”

Liu was initially admitted to hospital for treatment of serious bruises and injuries, but was quickly discharged because he could not afford to pay the medical bills.

“I have to save money to find the bodies of my loved ones and have proper burials for them,” he said.

With the government proving to be not much help, he organised his own search team with people willing to help and digging machines. After days of extensive searches along the river and spending nearly 10,000 yuan, he finally found the bodies of his wife and son. “I still could not find my daughter,” he murmured repeatedly, in tears, more than two weeks after the disaster.

When he tried to retrieve the bodies of his wife and son from the People’s Hospital in Wuan, he was shocked to learn he would have to pay nearly 7,000 yuan for storage and embalmment fees.

“Isn’t it unfair that I’ve yet to get any compensation from the government and we found the bodies all by ourselves, but I still need to pay the morgue such a huge sum of money to get them back?” he asked.

Villagers in many parts of Handan that were hit by the floods told similar stories.

Cuilu villager Qi and his wife, Yang Li, spent almost two weeks looking for the bodies of their daughter and infant son, who were washed away by the floodwaters on July 19, along with the children’s maternal grandmother, Wu Shuangcun, and her house.

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They found Wu’s body in a downstream reservoir two days after the flood hit. They identified the body of their daughter through DNA tests early this month.

“Minutes before the tragedy hit, I’d just finished a video chat with my lovely daughter and my son,” said Qi, who was working at a construction site in Beijing and rushed back home to Cuilu that night. “I never thought it would be the last time I saw them. When I learned both of them were killed in the flood, I felt my world collapse.”

Although torrential rain had come down in sheets and the usually dried-up river was already filled with water, no one in Cuilu had any idea that the disaster would strike so soon.

Like many Cuilu families who live along the river, Wu had a pig farm and a small house right on the riverbank.

Yang was keeping her mother company along with her five-year-old daughter Qi Hanyue and 18-month-old Qi Hanshuo.

“The rain had been pouring down non-stop for hours and my mother and I decided to take shelter in the home of a neighbour who lived a bit farther from the river,” Yang said. “The water had barely reached our house when I went out first to see if the neighbour was around while my mother was dressing my two little kids.

“It was at about 6pm. I was knocking on the neighbour’s door when a wall of muddy floodwater came suddenly and swept away my mother’s house within seconds.”

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Yang was almost washed away by the surging water and clung for her life to a riverside tree.

The floodwaters, carrying mud and rocks, that hurtled down the Cuilu River left seven people dead or missing in the village.

When Qi and Yang called the police for help they were told the authorities were too occupied with rescue operations elsewhere to be of any assistance.

With the help of relatives and neighbours, they searched again and again along the river valley and visited every hospital and morgue in Wuan. Their son’s body has yet to be found.

The couple also sought assistance from government agencies at Cishan township and Wuan city but were told leading officials were too busy to meet them.

“We don’t want to cause trouble and all we wanted was some additional help from the government to find our kids,” Qi said. “But so far not a single official has had the patience to hear us out. Some even criticised us, asking why we hadn’t evacuated ourselves in the light of such heavy downpours.

“Didn’t central and provincial government leaders always pledge they’d make utmost effort to ensure the people’s safety and rescue and save as many lives as possible?”

Several Cuilu villagers, including Qi, said hospitals charged them fees when they sought to retrieve the bodies of loved ones from morgues.

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Traumatised flood victims across Handan said they had received little relief assistance or compensation and they were worried about their future, because the local authorities had yet to unveil plans to help rebuild their homes a month after the disaster.

“We’ve tried to press the authorities over whether they’ll provide any assistance in rebuilding our homes, but so far they’ve simply said they were too busy to address our concerns about compensation and rebuilding plans,” Meiliangdian villager Ji Jun said.

At least two people were washed away by flash floods in Meiliangdian and dozens of houses were destroyed or subsequently categorised by the government as too dangerous to live in.

Villagers said they had not even been given enough food and water. Wang Dide, 68, said each person only received one kilogram of rice, some instant noodles, a small amount of flour and vegetables, along with a quilt.

She said she had never seen such a big flood.

“I’ve seen the floods in 1963 and 1996, both of which were also triggered by days of torrential rain, but the previous floods were much smaller compared to this one,” she said.

Ji said rescue operations led by the government had focused on repairing damaged roads and the telecommunications system.

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“It seems no one cares about how we can make a living after we lost most of our properties in the flood,” he said. “We really need help to get enough food, water and clothes and rebuild our homes. Please help us!”

Villagers said the local authorities had warned them against complaining to outsiders about their suffering, saying they might be punished if they did so.

On July 26, the Xingtai Public Security Bureau announced that it had punished three people for spreading rumours about the death toll from the flooding.