First the sky darkened. Then it rained – three days in a row. Inside her restaurant, Wang Ana barricaded the doors, trying to keep water from seeping in. When that didn’t work, she grabbed her young son and the broom handle with which the two of them made their way through the chin-high torrents of water to the house.
“We could only hold on to each other,” said Wang, a resident of Zhengzhou, the capital of central Henan province, home to about 12 million people.
Beginning last Tuesday, hurricanes pelted the city with the equivalent of a year’s worth of water in 72 hours and then moved north, flooding large parts of China’s Henan province. Authorities say more than a million people have been displaced by the rains, and at least 63 people have died in flooding that could theoretically happen once in a thousand years.
Like parts of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, Henan province was hit by unusually heavy downpours last week.
Just a few hundred meters north of Wang’s restaurant is the Jingguang Transport Tunnel, built on low-lying, formerly swampy land. Last Tuesday, water gushed into the kilometer-long tunnel, creating a strong current against which Wang and her son struggled, trying to stay on their feet.
“About 20 people – men, women, old and young – were also trying to get home during the storm, so we held hands: the front row pulled the back row forward and the back row pushed the front row forward,” Wang said. It took her only an hour to reach the house, which was a few hundred meters away.
Those inside the tunnel were less fortunate. About 200 cars were stuck in a few meters of water and then began to sink. Several drivers behind them stayed in their cars, mistaking the suspension for a traffic jam. At least two passengers never made it out.
“At that moment I felt incredibly hopeless,” Wu Qiang, the driver briefly stuck in the tunnel, told Chinese media after his ordeal. He and two other passengers survived by sneaking through the hatches of their cars and grasping at pipes attached to the ceiling of the tunnel. “I couldn’t help but shiver when I got out of the water,” he says.
As of Sunday, rescue crews were still pumping water out of two of the tunnel’s three sections. When an NPR reporter visited the tunnel three days after the flood, hundreds of police officers were around the scene, chasing away the curious, and several mud-covered cars were standing nearby, having been pulled out of the water.
Thirteen people also drowned in the rain-soaked Zhengzhou subway. Some passengers made desperate videos of saying goodbye to loved ones while standing chest-deep in water.
“For the first time in my life, I touched a dead body,” said a 15-year-old surviving passenger in a video recorded after the tragedy. The companions were suffocating in a closed subway car until rescuers arrived.
“For some reason I was calm throughout the whole ordeal because I refused to believe it was my time to die,” she says.
When the storm hit Zhengzhou last Tuesday, Wu Chao watched the news with horror from his home in Xi’an, a city about 300 kilometers away.
Wu, a short, cheerful businessman with a discreet haircut, immediately sprang into action. He loaded his car with food, water, and rescue equipment, and the next morning he and dozens of other volunteers from the private Dawn Emergency Rescue Team were on their way to Zhengzhou.
To get to the city, the rescuers had to traverse flooded roads and paralyzed infrastructure.
Some trains were stuck for days after the flooded tracks, and Zhengzhou briefly canceled all flights to the region.
By Thursday, Wu was helping organize inflatable boats to rescue patients stranded at the Fuwei Cardiovascular Hospital in Zhengzhou.
“The water was high in some places and low in others, making it impossible for vehicles to reach the stranded residents, so some members of my team jumped into the floodwater without a second thought,” he says. “I’m really touched by the resilience of the Chinese people in the face of disaster.”
Wu is part of an extensive rescue operation deployed by both the Chinese military and private groups to bring much-needed food and water to flooded communities and move residents to temporary evacuation centers.
Over the weekend, rescue teams turned their attention to the northern part of Henan province, where a tributary of the Yellow River has burst its banks after an upstream dam was opened to release floodwaters.
“I’ve been doing rescue work for six years, but before coming to Henan, I had never seen a flood as big as this one, which caused so much damage and affected so many people,” Huai said. – I don’t know what it is.