Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hope fading for survivors of China floods

Residents mourn their missing relatives in the landslide-hit Zhouqu County of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province August 11, 2010.

Flooding has already killed over 700, and chances are slim that the 1,000 more listed missing will be found

Hopes were fading of finding more survivors from flooding and landslides in northwestern China, as teams worked Wednesday to stave off disease outbreaks, three days after the disaster that killed at least 702 people.

More than 1,000 people were listed as missing, but with suffocating mud, stones and debris covering many houses, the chances of finding anyone alive were considered slight.

Instead, troops and rescue teams joined by traumatized survivors turned to recovering bodies and seeing to the needs of the living. Clean drinking water was a primary concern, with most local sources destroyed or too polluted to use.

Entire communities in Gansu province's Zhouqu district were swallowed up when the debris-choked Bailong River jumped its banks on Sunday, releasing wave after wave of mud and rubble-strewn water. While torrential rains were the direct cause, tree cutting that left the dry hills exposed and the weakening of cliff faces by a massive 2008 earthquake were seen as contributing to the disaster.

Buildings were torn from their foundations, their lower floors blown out by the force of the debris-laden water. Three villages comprising hundreds of households were buried entirely and much of the county seat left submerged.

On Wednesday, disinfectant crews in protective suits sprayed chemical disinfectant across the ground and over machinery, the smell of death heavy in the air. State media reported numerous cases of dysentery, while infected wounds, a lack of sanitation, clean drinking water and accumulating garbage all present the risk of typhoid, cholera and other diseases.

More rain is expected in the region in coming days, the China Meteorological Administration said. At least 45,000 people have evacuated their homes and the Civil Affairs Ministry reported the delivery of 7,000 tents and 21,400 blankets to the area, with thousands more on their way. Zhouqu has a total population of 134,000, but it wasn't clear how many needed emergency shelter.

Rescue crews were largely reliant on hand tools, with heavy equipment either unable to traverse the difficult terrain or mired in mud up to several metres deep.

Shen Si, a member of the Tibetan ethnic group native to the area, watched forlornly as troops dug to reach the bodies of her relatives inside their buried home.

“My mother and father were in their 60s and my younger brother, all three of them, are buried here in our house still,” she said.

Throughout the area, bodies were seen wrapped in blankets and tied to sticks or placed on planks and left on the shattered streets for pickup.

China's leadership has ordered teams to continue the search for survivors and the ruling Communist Party's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee met Tuesday to discuss rescue and relief work.

“It is now a critical time ... We must give the highest prominence to the protection of people's lives and properties,” it said in a statement.

Flooding in China has killed about 1,800 people this year and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage across 28 provinces and regions.

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