Racing against rising floods in Zhuozhou

Beijing and its surrounding areas have been hit by the heaviest rainfall in 140 years. Villages are flooded. Homes are lost. The race is on to save lives.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By Staff reporters


Beijing and its surrounding areas have been hit by the heaviest rainfall in 140 years. Villages are flooded. Homes are lost. The race is on to save lives.

ZHANG Shukui and his family were rescued in Zhuozhou after 36 hours. They had been following the flooding in neighboring Beijing, but they were still caught by surprise. 

Zhang's family lives in a dorm next to a factory. When the flood rose, the managers didn't mention evacuation. Outside the factory, a torrent ran along what used to be a dirt road.

"When we were finally told to leave, the water was already waist-high," he said. "There were sixteen of us, including four children and five old people. The oldest is 81."

Around 75 cm of rain fell on Beijing and the surrounding area last week, the heaviest in at least 140 years. Zhuozhou in Hebei Province, where the Juma River splits into numerous branches, saw the worst flooding.

The buildings are underwater, without electricity or drinking water. An estimated 100,000 people are affected.

In Zhuotong village, WANG Miaomiao's family of nine was stranded upstairs at a neighbor's house while she was trapped in the capital. That night, she got a text message that her village would be used as a flood storage area.

Failure to protect against flood is dealt with through drains and floodwalls. If these methods fail, designated areas are flooded to save others. Usually, people living in these places are given enough time to evacuate.

In Zhuozhou, however, the flood came so fast that villagers barely had time to respond.

"Almost no one in our village got out. They are all waiting to be rescued," Wang told Jiemian News on, awaiting news at a nearby village. Her own house was already underwater. A neighbor had taken in her family. "Two babies ran out of formula. There are two pregnant women in the village too," she said.

Search and rescue teams were busy. The roads were closed for two days, and the water was too fast for their boats.  Wang texted and called for updates and was told that her village would be next, but no one showed up. A team from Anhui was waiting for an "official "invitation letter to be able legally to operate in Zhuozhou.

At midnight, Wang got through a government hotline. The man on the other side said rescuers were on the way. "All I can do was wait," she said. "I'm too anxious to eat or do anything. I don't know how long I can last."

Finally, after 48 hours, her 92-year-old grandfather was rescued. The boat was not big enough for the rest of the family, but rescuers left some food and water. "They are being rescued one by one," Wang said.

All over town, people gradually reached their stranded families. LIN Hong hasn't been able to reach her parents since Wednesday morning. Several hundred people are waiting to be rescued, many on their rooftops.

"When my dad last texted me that they were going to take shelter in my uncle's house, the water was chest high," she said. "They weren't able to take anything, not even our cat."

Wading to safety

ZHOU Xin secured two boats for her village, where about a hundred people were waiting. When she last spoke to her dad, on Monday night, the house was not flooded but the water and electricity were off.

She hasn't been able to reach them since. Another villager told her that in places the water was two meters high. Some people had taken refuge in a half-finished high-rise building but without food or water there.

ZHU Changxin was stuck on the roof of a deserted factory building for two days. With him were twelve other people. "We had nothing to eat. Not a single drop of water. We just stood there," he said.

"I called so many rescuers but they were not assigned to our area. Rescuers can only go to where the government tells them to go." Eventually, when the water receded, Zhu waded to safety.

The whole of Zhuozhou was without water or electricity. A spokesperson said there should be enough food and medicine for the next few days, but he didn't know how long they would last.

YAN Shi, a local volunteer, offered his office to people affected by the flood. "The space can take fifty people. "We give out food and water," Yan said. When he spoke to Jiemian News on Wednesday, the flood was already receding. "We are a team of ten and we have a boat. I think we are fine," he said.

Some volunteers, however, have been waiting in a bureaucratic limbo. The flood was designated a category IV natural disaster – the lowest grade – which does not automatically authorize the participation of volunteer rescuers. Rescue teams seem to have traveled across the country only to find out that they first have to be "invited."'

ZHANG Huiying arrived from 200 kilometers away with an "invitation letter" for her team of 10. They were given two boats, but she doesn't keep track of how many people have been rescued. When a boat is full, it ferries the people to safety and goes out again.

"We worked until three in the morning on Wednesday," she said. One of the boats capsized that day but everyone was OK. "It was hard. But we have enough supplies, and the team has a place to rest," she said.

YU Yumin brought his team 2,000 kilometers away from Sichuan, asking for an invitation while he was close, but everyone he reached was busy. "I said to the other side of the phone, whoever you are, just write me something that looks official," he said. He was greeted by a government coordinator at a highway exit and let in without a problem.