Horrific images of people drowning and being swept away as torrential floods swamped the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou have sparked online anger and questions for the local authorities over the speed of the emergency response and the lack of warning to the city’s residents.
Video clips of the floods posted to social media showed a man inside his SUV as the turbulent, muddy water rose above the hood as well as cars with lights on being swept on their sides into a fast-flowing torrent.
In other clips, people wait patiently in a subway train as the waters rise to waist height, or desperately try to lift themselves and children out of the main current as they are swept down the street.
Some clips showed dead bodies; others the rescue of people from deep and fast-flowing waters by bystanders using ropes and tree branches.
“We are trapped in the subway,” says one passenger in a cell phone video. “The water is already deep — up to our waists.”
“We are at Shakou Road on Metro Line 5,” the man said.
The floods came as large swathes of central China were drenched in days of record rainfall, damaging dams and riverbanks, and causing landslides and building collapses.
A Zhengzhou resident surnamed Wang said there had been no warnings issued to local people before the city was flooded, and the subway had been running a normal service.
“There was no warning, not even on the subway, which should have been suspended,” Wang said. “So many people were unprepared.”
She said water levels in the city has risen swiftly, in the space of half an hour.
‘Drip, drip’ flow of information
Online comments took issue with an official Zhengzhou government press release issued at 8.00 p.m. which reported that there were trains stranded in the tunnels, but made no mention of stranded passengers or deaths. A later statement made brief reference to the rescue of a single passenger identified by the nickname Xiaopei.
Comments hit out at the “drip, drip” attitude to information release by the authorities, and accused them of trying to cover up the extent of the disaster.
Journalists said that the floods followed multiple red rain warnings from the meteorological bureau that rainfall would likely exceed 100mm.
But the authorities allowed the whole city to carry on as normal.
According to an emergency directive released by the Zhengzhou Municipal Flood Control and Prevention Command Center on Tuesday, authorities released floodwaters to ease pressure on the Changzhuang Reservoir, upstream from Zhengzhou, at around 10.00 a.m. on July 20, a few hours before Zhengzhou was inundated.
But the directive announcing the discharge of floodwaters wasn’t released until the early hours of July 21, and bore no time of release.
Sources told RFA that the media has been ordered not to report on the discharge of floodwaters, nor on the details of the flooding of the Zhengzhou subway.
Veteran journalist Hong Tao said the government statements led people to believe that the situation was under control by around 9.00 p.m., when in fact there were still passengers trapped in trains and calling for help as late as 9.00 p.m.
“We also saw a number of accidents happening on the streets, like drownings, electric shocks, and there must have been casualties from those, but so far I haven’t seen any official announcement about those,” Hong said.
Casualties and damage
Repeated calls to the Zhengzhou Flood Prevention and Control Center were automatically transferred to a fax machine during office hours on Wednesday, while repeated calls to the municipal government offices and the emergency control and command center rang unanswered.
A current affairs commentator surnamed Tang who lives in Zhengzhou said the authorities must have had some idea what was coming.
“We had all that heavy rain, but where was the government’s [flood defense] plan?” Tang said. “They had known for some time that there would be heavy rain, so why didn’t they suspend some public transportation services?”
“The officials were likely afraid of getting demerits and trying to cover up the extent of the disaster.”
A former judicial affairs bureau official from Zhengzhou surnamed Liu said nobody in government is allowed to talk about the number of deaths, outside of the official announcements.
A Zhengzhou resident surnamed Zhang said he had asked the government to explain its flood defense plan.
“I want to know what they did when it was raining,” Zhang said. “I just want an explanation. So far, they haven’t responded to my specific enquiries.”
Xinhua News Agency reported on Wednesday, citing ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary Xi Jinping, that the flooding situation in Henan was now “very serious,” with heavy casualties and damage to property.
It said around 100,000 people had been evacuated from areas still threatened by rising floodwaters.
The Henan provincial water resources department issued a statement early on Wednesday morning saying that Henan had been hit by the worst rainfall in 1,000 years.
Parts of Zhengzhou are still without power or drinking water, while thousands of trains and flights into and out of Henan province have been suspended or canceled, with tens of thousands of passengers left stranded.
The province isn’t out of danger yet. Reuters reported that at least 31 large and medium-sized reservoirs in Henan reported water levels over the danger line on Wednesday.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.