Revisiting Zhuozhou after flood: ruins, rescue teams, and animals

The flood in Zhuozhou has receded, but there is a long way to go for locals to restore their lives.

All photos by Cai Xingzhuo

All photos by Cai Xingzhuo

By CAI Xingzhuo


On August 7, a week after the storm, I went to Zhuozhou to capture the city’s post-flood scenes. In a rideshare car with volunteers, I headed for a village about 20 kilometers from the center of town.

Some standing water remained, but the entire vista could be summed up in one word: mud.

The ads on the village bus shelter were sodden. Buildings showed clear tidemarks. Dead livestock had been hauled out of the water. Cars were stranded on roadsides, soaked furniture was rotting outside stores. The one comforting thing was the smell of cooking as local people gratefully fed the rescue teams.

The Lanling rescue team rescued over 150 people and dozens of dogs. JIA Nan is a squad leader focused on animal protection and rescue.

Jia Nan in a rescue vehicle in Zhuozhou, Hebei Province on August 8, 2023.  

The following is her account.

I’m Jia Nan, the leader of the third squad in the animal protection division of Beijing’s Lanling Rescue. I'm a veterinarian and I’ve worked as a nurse in an animal hospital, and trained search and rescue dogs. I’ve been with our team of four women and 14 men for six months and this is my first time responding to a major disaster.

On August 2, we received a distress call from "Uncle Cao," who runs a small animal shelter in Zhuozhou.

Our rescue team is focused on people and animals involved in road accidents and we have very little experience of dealing with floods. We took five rescue vehicles with special water rescue equipment, two boats, a huge air cushion, a generator and satellite phones.

We were among the first to arrive. As the deputy leader, I have to be ready to step in for any situation and take over responsibilities. My tasks include managing the scene and ensuring logistical support. Team members who can swim go where boats cannot.

As we headed into town, I saw water everywhere and tons of floating trash. Nearer to the shelter, we came across at least eight other rescue teams. Some said that the water was as deep as four meters. Villagers looked disheartened and exhausted. Even though the rain had stopped, a dense mist reduced visibility.

Our team leader LIU Yintong jumped into a boat with another rescue team to see what needed to be done. After discussions, we decided to begin transferring people from small villages to safer areas right away. The rain had stopped long ago and the weather was scorching. Even in dry areas, our clothes were sopping wet. It was hard to tell if it was sweat, mist or water.

On August 2, we finished work very late. We began relocating the animals from the shelter first thing the next morning. It was still pitch-black. Our rescue team has a long-standing maxim of avoiding nighttime water operations. But with shoulder-mounted lights, I gauged the situation a few meters ahead and proceeded through chest-high water with the team and our guide, the shelter owner, behind me.

I could feel various items like tables, chairs, and benches, and even a large bed float by. The water was hardly moving, but when I opened a door, a rush of water came towards me, its force was strong enough that I needed the assistance of my teammates to proceed.

Wading into the murk and using my hands to clear the way ahead, I connected with a furry leg. I gently pushed the stiff body behind me along the water flow and continued into the dark.

When Uncle Cao recognized a white French bulldog, the first of many dead animals we would find, he cried out in desperation, calling its name, Lao Bao. Having been through this many times before, I needed him to calm down. “Right now, we’re dealing with not just one dog, but with dozens of lives. Let’s focus on the ones that are still alive.”

In truth, many dogs had not made it. Some had drowned, others had been in the water for too long and died of exhaustion. Some suffered infections resulting in kidney failure, and so on.

The surviving dogs were put into cages and moved to high ground. It was only 5 am, and our team was nearly exhausted. We had carried over 20 cages of distressed dogs out of the shelter.

Water rescues are challenging and complex. All the time, we were concerned that we might be trapped there. By the next afternoon, the water had mostly receded.

After the task of rescuing all the people we could, we collected the dogs, both dead and alive, including the tragic Lao Bao. The dead ones were taken to a crematorium for safe disposal. As it turned out, only 10 of the more than 60 dogs in the shelter had died. Things could have been much worse.

By August 7 when the operation drew to a close, our team had conducted a total of 85 rescue operations, saving more than 150 people and over 70 animals.

Our losses were substantial - we damaged one speedboat, three walkie-talkies ended up in the water, and somehow, we even lost two sets of fast-charging lifebuoys.

We initially planned to rescue a flock of 20 sheep, but the water receded and the sheep were able to make their own way to safety. In the shallow waters of the village, we encountered a hedgehog and handed it over to the China Animal Aid Team.

Witnessing animals die while feeling powerless is heartbreaking. The first dead dog I saw was my own pet. In my early twenties, I brought home a puppy from a friend’s place. My mother cared for it until it was over one year old, then someone in my neighborhood began poisoning dogs and that led to a pretty horrible death for my puppy. And I still remember the Labrador in late-stage canine distemper I encountered during my internship at an animal hospital. It was the first time I saw a pair of eyes lose their spark of life.

These memories and many more since I began my work, are my driving force. After the 7-day mission in Zhuozhou, our team returned to Beijing for repairs. Once reenergized, we will head to the next rescue site where many people and animals are waiting for our assistance.

A dismayed Uncle Cao, owner of the surveys the temporary courtyard where his surviving dogs are to be housed. Cao has been running the shelter for years.
Shelters for stray animals were set up all over China in the late 1980s and early 1990s by NGOs such as the China Small Animal Protection Association. There are thousands of such small shelters across the country, and at least 99 percent of them are unregistered.
Volunteer SHAN Hao wades into the flood in Zhuozhou, Hebei Province on August 7. A couple of days ago, the area could only be accessed by boat.
Flooded agricultural land represents massive losses for farmers.
This bus stop was almost completely underwater a couple of days before.
Home furnishings will be essential when the cleanup is complete, but for now, this store closed indefinitely.
An animal carcass hangs from a tree.
Rural roads have become rivers of mud.
The water is gradually receding.
A bathhouse in urban Zhuozhou offers showers to rescue teams. A thank-you poster from the teams is affixed to its glass door.
Two men wade into water in Zhuozhou. A trolley is all they have, but a boat is what they really need.
An animal carcass floating in the water.
A car has emerged from the muddy deluge.
Two dogs rescued by kayak from a Zhuozhuo shelter in the middle of night, await transfer to drier parts.
Traces of flooding can be seen under a road bridge.
The flood only lasted for a few days, but the aftermath will take months to clean up.
A dog lies down next to a flock of sheep that were drowned a few days ago. Hauling away such obvious health hazards is a high priority.
Traces of mud cling to vegetation all over Zhuozhou city.
At the entrance to the village there is neither time nor place to sit down and relax.
A lone cow seeks food and shelter at the entrance of Zhongxiang village school.
A villager gazes into his empty pigsty at Zhongxiang Village after all his pigs perished in the storm.
Tidemarks are clearly visible on the entrance of a housing compound.
There are more carcasses in Zhongxiang Village than living pigs. The few survivors forage among the dead. Villagers don't expect them to live.
Dead live stock is heaped up around the corner of a village alley junction.
A mother and child look on as relief supplies are unloaded.
All the surviving dogs from this shelter are relocated, but traces remain of many who failed to make it.
Many dogs are found on the shelves outside Uncle Cao's animal shelter. As the waters rose, the surviving dogs stook refuge here, among their food supply.
Pawprints of the deceased and living alike paint a sad picture inside the shelter.
Lanling Rescue and China Animal Rescue Team prepare to move dogs by boat from a place of safety to a more central location.
Dogs inside their temporary home make a lively commotion when people approach.
As rescue workers carry dogs out of a room in the courtyard, team leader Liu is struck on the head by a low ceiling fan and requires seven stitches. It's no fun, but quite a change from the regular dog bites that afflict rescuers.
No one wants to get bitten, but no dogs are left behind either.
Grateful dogs at the shelter are not as happy as they look, awaiting transfer to drier parts of town.
All the essentials - a first aid kit, a dog-catching pole and some fresh water - inside the temporary courtyard at Maojiatun Village in Zhuozhou.
Uncle Cao shows how high the water rose. Small dogs had little chance of survival, but many made it through.
Dogs are loaded onto a large airconditioned truck. China Animal Rescue Team will accompany them throughout the journey.
Uncle Cao’s dogs arrive at the new location where they will stay until Uncle Cao’s shelter at is restored.
Jia Nan helping unload dog food at the new courtyard at Dongmagezhuang Village.
Uncle Cao carries a dog into the new courtyard.
A group of surviving sheep safely graze at Dongmagezhuang Village on August 8.