Frantic searches continue for loved ones in debris-strewn aftermath of China's record rains

In Mihe, China, the downpour has dumped piles of fresh mud on the town, which is in a flat-bottomed valley. PHOTO: NYTIMES

MIHE, CHINA (AFP, NYTIMES) - With homes in ruins, pulverised roads and a sea of mud-coated cars, the once affluent central Chinese town of Mihe was still in shock on Thursday (July 22) as residents turned to food handouts and slept rough after record-breaking storms.

Devastated locals surveyed the damage as the rains finally subsided, treading carefully on smashed paving through tangles of collapsed electricity poles and wires.

"I've lost everything, it's all been washed away," said one middle-aged resident, before bursting into tears.

Many had barely eaten for days, with water, electricity and phone signals cut off.

"Mihe used to be a lively, prosperous town but now it's utterly ruined," a 22-year-old university student surnamed Du told AFP.

AFP was given rare access to a rescue mission in stricken Henan province, joining a large team of volunteers that drove hundreds of miles through the night to offer help.

With cars full of food, water and supplies, the Blue Sky Rescue team arrived at Mihe, 35km west of Henan's capital of Zhengzhou, early on Thursday.

Volunteer Wang Lang said they arrived in that town in response to calls from local firefighters about stranded residents, and worked with the authorities to "evacuate residents and recover bodies".

At least two people were killed in their homes in the area during the storms, they said, as calls kept coming in throughout the day of other fatalities, including a girl trapped by a falling tree.

So far, 51 deaths have been reported across Henan province during the floods, but the number is expected to rise as storms subside and rescue operations continue across a heavily populated area where communications have been severely disrupted. At least eight remained missing.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected by the floods across Henan province, with farmland ruined by floodwaters and transport paralysed.

A student from the province started an open-source spreadsheet for relatives to list lost or stranded loved ones. Shared on social media, the list quickly racked up hundreds of names.

As their work continued through Thursday, rescuers with shovels and helmets battled a thick layer of mud at least a foot deep, trying to return some sense of normality to reeling residents.

"When I first arrived here and saw villagers scavenging for corn cobs from the fields, I felt very sad," said one volunteer in his thirties, surnamed Zhou.

The smaller, one-storey houses were the worst hit, and Blue Sky helped to drive some of the elderly residents out of the devastated town to higher ground.

Locals recounted stories of being pulled from flooded homes to safety, scrambling to higher floors and watching neighbouring houses come down in the onslaught.

"We couldn't evacuate in time because my elderly, disabled grandma couldn't leave the house," said one 16-year-old school student surnamed Zhang, who said their house had completely flooded. "I was pretty scared I would drown."

The disaster that has unfolded since heavy rain began on Sunday has affected more than three million people in the Henan province, emergency officials there said, including more than 250,000 who were displaced from their homes.

Even as the rains eased somewhat - and officials lowered the alert levels - desperate searches continued for loved ones unaccounted for more than 48 hours after the worst of the flooding.

The Paper, a newspaper belonging to a state-owned media group, on Thursday posted a list of people searching for missing relatives.

People riding a front loader as it goes through a flooded road following heavy rainfall in Zhengzhou, Henan, on July 22, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

The missing included Yan Yichen, a 12-year-old boy from Gongyi County, who told his family that he was curious to see the floodwaters and went out for a look.

"He never came back," the boy's grandmother Cui Yuncai said, sobbing, when reached by telephone on Thursday.

In towns and villages on the outskirts of Zhengzhou, the provincial capital at the centre of the disaster, residents described still more who remained unaccounted for.

In Zhengzhou, subway service remained suspended after flooding that trapped trains in tunnels that filled with water. At least 12 people died in the subway, and hundreds had to be evacuated in harrowing rescues.

Near the city's third ring road, dozens of cars remained piled up at the entrance to a long highway underpass, still submerged.

It was not clear whether those inside the vehicles had time to escape - and some appeared to have gone missing.

Help from Singapore Red Cross

The Singapore Red Cross (SRC) has committed US$150,000 (S$203,973) in the first instance to support relief and recovery efforts in China as well as in Belgium and Germany - all devastated by recent record rains.

The funds will be channelled towards the purchase and distribution of essential items to the affected communities, SRC said.

"Our hearts go out to those who have lost loved ones, and those displaced by the floods and are now in evacuation camps," said Mr Benjamin William, SRC secretary-general and chief executive.

"Besides the difficult rescue operations, relief workers also face additional challenges with the ongoing pandemic and the potential spread of waterborne diseases, as well as insufficient food and clean water supplies."

SRC said it has also activated its Restoring Family Links service to assist Singaporeans and others in locating their immediate family members who may have been affected by the disaster.

For assistance, please contact SRC at rfl@redcross.sg

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