Sunday, July 22, 2012

scmp: Heaviest rain in 6 decades causes chaos in Beijing

Heaviest rain in 6 decades causes chaos in Beijing

At least 37 people were killed as the heaviest downpour in six decades hit Beijing, causing chaos and sparking criticism of officials ill-prepared to deal with an emergency situation.

The rainstorms, which started on Saturday afternoon and continued until early Sunday morning, flooded key roads, left cars floating, paralysed transport, and sent torrents of water into homes and car parks. More than 50,000 people in the capital were evacuated, mostly from outlying mountainous districts, Xinhua reported.

The death toll is expected to rise with the media saying yesterday that numerous people, including rescue workers, were missing.

The heavy downpour caused 545 flights to be cancelled or delayed at Beijing Capital International Airport (SEHK: 0694) and stranded more than 80,000 people, Xinhua said. Starting from Saturday afternoon, more than 20 Beijing-bound flights at Hong Kong International Airport were delayed and one was cancelled. Some of the flights were delayed for almost 12 hours. Train services between Beijing and Guangzhou were also suspended as some sections of the railway line were under water.

Always considered a dry city, an orange alert - the second highest rainstorm warning - was issued for the first time in Beijing on Saturday evening. An average of 17cm of rain was recorded by 6am yesterday, the largest since weather records began in 1951. Hebei town in Fangshan district recorded 46cm of rain, according to the Beijing Meteorological Bureau. The rainstorms were the first stern test for the leadership of Guo Jinlong , newly elected as party secretary last month. CCTV reported that Guo held an emergency meeting after midnight and demanded that safety be given top priority.

However, the capital city's handling of the disaster attracted much criticism. The critics say the weekend rainstorms exposed inadequacies in the capital city's infrastructure, especially the lack of sufficient storm-water facilities to deal with heavy rain.

"It clearly showed that the city's infrastructure has big problems," said Shi Qixin , a professor of transport engineering at Tsinghua University.

Roads in the city have been designed to concave under bridges as a cost-saving measure, which means there has to be a good drainage system to go with the design, otherwise water can back up quickly in heavy downpours.

"The city has developed too fast for its sewage system to catch up - it cannot take in so much water any more," Shi said. "Government officials are fully aware of the problem, but how fast it [the drainage system] will be renovated depends on the determination of those officials."

Yi Peng , a researcher with the National Development and Reform Commission, said: "It was a disaster indeed, but we cannot ignore human responsibility.

"A contingency strategy by the city's flood and drought prevention office promised tailor-made plans for individual bridges, yet a man was drowned at a downtown bridge, which shows that their contingency plan has failed."

Staff of the Airport Expressway still stopped cars and charged toll fees when the expressway was flooded and cars were likely to stall.

"All this has shown that the authorities need to improve their emergency management capabilities."

He also criticised the municipal government for failing to give enough warnings to people beforehand or to take the lead to broadcast important weather information. The government did not issue warnings on television nor did it send text messages to mobile phone users. The official Sina microblog of the Beijing government information office and Beijing police only warned residents of the danger late at night, when the city was already flooded.

More downpours were forecast yesterday for northeastern and southwestern China, where at least 10 others were reported killed at the weekend, Xinhua said.

A total of 120 million yuan (HK$146 million) has been allocated for relief and repairs in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province, according to the Ministry of Finance.

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