Flooding in China spurs vast evacuation

The Baltimore Sun

Huainan, China -- For days, the rain had come in warm, drenching sheets. It swelled the Huai River and turned the heavy, clay soil along its watershed into a sticky muck that sucked the shoes off people's feet.

Zheng Zhaojun, who has lived here all of his 32 years, knew the danger the river posed. So when the Communist Party secretary for his village came calling, Zheng moved quickly.

"They told us the water is rising fast, go," Zheng recalled as he stood in the doorway of the blue canvas tent that has been his family's temporary home for nearly two weeks.

The tent, and dozens around it, stood about 10 feet from a small, hastily built earthen levee. Behind it, water stretched nearly to the horizon, covering Zheng's house, farm and the properties of thousands of others.

Zheng's story is a common one this summer. Heavy rains have inundated southern China, causing the worst flooding in half a century. More than 100 million people have been affected, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The widespread flooding has led to an evacuation of enormous proportions.

Using the extensive resources of a Communist Party system that, to the dismay of many, still reaches into every crack and crevice of society, China has moved more than a million people from the paths of the floodwaters.

Over the weekend, Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Chongqing, wading through the hard-hit city's streets in black galoshes and promising help.

"This once-in-a-century rain has destroyed your homes and washed away your belongings, causing significant losses," Hu said, according to state media. "I am as sad as you. We must have the determination and courage to overcome this."

About 400 people nationwide have died in the flooding, but the response has been efficient compared with the aftermath of epic Chinese floods in which tens or even hundreds of thousands of people have died.

"Different countries have different systems," said Xu Long, vice president of Fengtai County, a part of the southern province of Anhui that includes Huainan. "Maybe China has the unique advantage of having the party hierarchy."

Many Chinese consider the Communist Party less than advantageous. But the party knows how to mobilize, and that has helped with floodwaters lapping at people's doors.

In Anhui Province, state media said Sunday, more than 180,000 people have been put to work on flood control. Nationally, several hundred thousand soldiers of the People's Liberation Army are among those deployed for disaster relief.

Taking a break for dinner, several top officials in Fengtai County explained how the system works.

Preparations for flood season this year began in March, with a range of plans mapped out for floods of varying seriousness. As it turned out, the county needed its most far-reaching disaster plan.

Depending on the severity of a flood, decisions on how to respond are made at the county, municipal, provincial or national level. Officials from various departments organized into temporary Flood Disaster Relief Offices, the head of which is the highest official at that level of government.

Orders pass down the governmental and party chain of command until they reach individual cadres in small villages.

Fengtai has about 60 villages, each with about 20 Communist Party cadres.

The cadres are assigned to deliver evacuation orders like the one carried out in Zheng Zhaojun's village. It is unusual for anyone to refuse to leave.

In some cases, the flooding along the Huai was caused by levees that cracked and broke. In others, it was caused by the intentional opening of levees to relieve pressure downstream. In still others, the water rose high enough to breach the levees.

In a rural area like this, traffic jams are not a major issue. People walked, rode motorbikes or got rides in cars, trucks and tractors to get to higher ground. They moved in with friends and relatives or sought shelter in government buildings or in tent cities.

Chen Jiantin, a 17-year-old student from another farming village, wound up in his fifth-grade classroom.

His father, Chen Ruiguo, a 51-year-old farmer, said he has looked at his house since being evacuated and found that the water was chest-high.

"All our belongings are in the water now," he said. The most valuable of them are the crops - corn, beans and sweet potatoes. "If the water goes down now, they might be saved," he said.

That, weather officials say, is unlikely. Forecasts call for continued rain, and the flooding is expected to continue for days.

Mitchell Landsberg writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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