77 million people, 17 provinces hit The snowstorms that have wreaked havoc across central and southern areas are the worst natural disaster since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, according to the mainland's top disaster relief official. Speaking to the South China Morning Post from Anhui province yesterday, Wang Zhenyao , a vice-director of the Ministry of Civil Affairs' National Disaster Reduction Centre, said the central government would need international aid in its relief work, although it was still too early to talk about sending relief material because of transport bottlenecks. It was also too early to gauge the demand for relief material due to the magnitude of the disaster, which was even worse than the massive flooding of 1998. 'It really depends from which direction the relief material is sent. If it is sent from Hong Kong, then it has to wait until the Beijing-Kowloon Railway is reopened.' Mr Wang said the number of affected people remained at 77 million. He said the government's priorities were to restore transport links and send necessities to families facing acute difficulty. But he would not estimate the number of households in that situation. Xinhua quoted Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu as telling a televised conference that conditions in some areas were getting worse. He also called for accurate and updated weather reports. Rail and road transport from north to south have ground to a halt in the heaviest snowfalls in the region in half a century. A coal shortage has led to power cuts and flights to the provinces worst-hit by the transport backlog, like Hunan and Guangdong, have only partially resumed. According to figures released on the Ministry of Civil Affairs' website yesterday, 38 people have died in the disaster from causes such as collapsed buildings, slippery paths and drowning. The figure did not include people killed in traffic accidents. A total of 17 provinces have been affected while 1.61 million people have been moved to safer areas. Some 6.7 million hectares of arable land has been damaged, 149,000 buildings have collapsed and 602,000 buildings have been damaged. The disaster had inflicted direct economic losses of 32.67 billion yuan, the ministry said. The government had upgraded the disaster relief alert from grade four to grade two in the six worst-hit provinces, it said. According to ministry figures, which are incomplete because figures from other ministries are not included, the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Ministry of Finance have sent 193 million yuan of central government disaster relief funds to the six worst-hit provinces of Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou, Guangxi , Jiangxi and Anhui. The People's Liberation Army has also sent 219,000 military jackets and 419,000 blankets. The ministry has ordered local civil affairs bureaus to distribute food, bottled water and blankets to stranded passengers.