Record Floods Unleash Deadly Destruction Across Central China

Record Floods Unleash Deadly Destruction Across Central China
Photo: STR/AFP, Getty Images

At least 25 people are dead and seven are missing in central China after a deluge of rain hit the province of Henan on Tuesday, forcing hundreds of thousands to evacuate, trapping passengers in subways, and turning city streets into rivers. Officials said that more than a dozen cities in Henan have been hit by the heavy rains, affecting 1.24 million people, and at least 160,000 people across the province have been evacuated.

Videos and firsthand accounts posted to social media show an especially scary scene inside the subway in Zhengzhou, where commuters on the No. 5 subway line were trapped in water reaching up to their necks. Other riders filmed floodwaters rushing past doors. Officials said 500 have been rescued, but at least 12 people have died in the subway and five have been injured.

“I texted my mother, ‘Mum, I don’t think I can make it, I’m scared,’” a post by a person who was trapped in the subway and shared by state media online read. “I was on the brink of breaking down.”

The rain keeps falling in Zhengzhou and across the province — and the crisis keeps unfolding as the government scrambles to help people still in danger. By Wednesday, local media reported that some trains carrying some 10,000 passengers had been trapped in by deluge for more than 40 hours, including one train with more than 700 people aboard that has been stopped outside of the Zhengzhou city limits for two days. Officials said food and water supplies are running out for those still on the public transit system. Hospitals in Zhengzhou, a city of more than 10 million people, are also working to evacuate hundreds of patients as the power is still out and waters are still flooding buildings.

President Xi Jinping said in an appearance on state television Wednesday that the floods had caused “significant loss of life and damage to property” across the province. “Some reservoirs had their dams burst,” Xi said. “The flood control situation is extremely severe.”

Social media posts shared by state-affiliated media outlets show dramatic scenes from across Henan: a person being swept away by floods in the street, a group holding hands struggling waist-deep against water, firefighters floating children out of their flooded school in plastic bins, a woman being pulled out of raging water by a rope.

While urban flooding is common in China, the rainfall that unleashed these floods was record-setting. The annual rainfall average for Zhengzhou is 25.2 inches (64.1 centimeters), but 24.3 inches (61.7 centimeters) fell in the city between Saturday and Tuesday alone. The level of rain, state meteorologists said, was a “once in a thousand years” event, and the heaviest rainfall in Zhengzhou in 60 years. The heaviest rate of rainfall in the city reached 7.95 inches (20.2 centimeters) per hour over the weekend, beating the previous record of 7.81 inches (19.9 centimeters) set in 1975.

A 2017 study found that China hasn’t seen a change in average precipitation but that “the intensity of heavy rainfall and the area suffering from extreme precipitation events have expanded” since the 1950s. The study looked at the influence of natural climate factors as well as local human ones like urbanisation and found that the latter played a greater role in the increase. Climate change has also increased the odds of heavy rainfall in large swaths of the world. A warmer atmosphere can hold more water, which makes downpours like the one hitting Zhengzhou more common. A 2018 study found that climate change will make extreme rainfall significantly more likely in Zengzhou.

The floods add to a growing set of climate-charged disasters, including wildfires raging across the U.S., Canada, and Siberia, deadly heat waves across the West, and floods in Detroit and across Europe that have devastated communities since the beginning of the summer.

“Such extreme weather events will likely become more frequent in the future,” Johnny Chan, a professor of atmospheric science at City University of Hong Kong, told Reuters. “What is needed is for governments to develop strategies to adapt to such changes.”