By Laurie Chen
BEIJING (Reuters) – Last week, the city of Zhuozhou was devastated by the worst floods to hit northern China in living memory. Today, residents are asking why the local government didn’t do more to help them.
Thousands of homes and livelihoods were damaged when Zhuozhou, less than 80 km (50 miles) south of Beijing, bore the brunt of the floods that swept through Hebei province and other northern areas in the wake of Typhoon Doksuri.
Direct economic losses from the floods in the Baoding area, which includes Zhuozhou, amount to 17 billion yuan ($2.36 billion), according to local government estimates.
“In other places you see leaders rushing to the front line and coordinating rescue efforts, but in Zhuozhou they disappeared,” said a resident surnamed Wang, who was stranded in his apartment for three days without electricity.
“Rescue groups arrived from all over China but couldn’t find anyone to liaise with.”
Wu Chunlei, 42, whose two-storey house and factory were ruined, said villagers guided rescue groups to flood-stricken rural areas because government workers were not present.
“At the time there was no phone signal and we couldn’t contact any local officials. We could only save ourselves,” Wu said.
Reuters tried to contact the local governments of Zhuozhou and the larger Baoding area, but repeated calls were not answered.
In a statement on Sunday, Zhuozhou’s local government said it had “quickly launched a rescue plan” and that the city’s Communist Party leader was “firmly on the front line of flood fighting and disaster relief”.
Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a written order for “all-out” rescue efforts on Aug. 1, and this week dispatched Vice Premier Zhang Guoqing to visit flooded areas in northern China, including Zhuozhou, state media reported. State media has signalled that Xi and other top Communist Party members are on their annual summer retreat.
But in a sign that the authorities were becoming sensitive to criticism by flood victims, several blogposts about the Zhuozhou floods, including first-person accounts, have been censored from the messaging platform WeChat.
More than a sixth of the city’s 600,000 inhabitants were evacuated. Some of those who stayed behind said a lack of urgency from local officials led them to ignore evacuation notices until it was too late.
Other residents said they didn’t receive any warning.
“We didn’t receive any information,” a carpenter surnamed Zhu told Reuters from his home, where he said flood waters four metres (13 feet) deep caused more than 300,000 yuan ($41,870) worth of damage.
“The entire outer steel frame of my house was washed away, all my furniture, tools and machinery downstairs were lost. The foundation collapsed into the ground.”
Many residents believe that the floods were worsened by a government decision on July 31 to divert floodwaters from Baoding’s overflowing reservoirs to so-called flood storage areas, two of which were in Zhuozhou.
These areas may include low-lying populated land, according to China’s flood control laws. Residents of flood storage areas are entitled to compensation worth 70% of housing damage, the law says.
Several Zhuozhou residents said they had submitted damage reports to local officials but have yet to hear back about compensation. China’s cabinet has vowed to return flood victims to their homes by winter, while Beijing officials announced that post-disaster recovery could take up to a year.
Zhuozhou is not the only area where residents are angry at perceived government inaction.
In the city of Bazhou, 130 kms southeast of Zhuozhou, dozens of flood victims staged a rare protest during which they unfurled banners demanding compensation, according to video clips posted on social media platform X last week.
Reuters managed to geolocate the videos but could not verify the date they were shot.
(Reporting by Laurie Chen; Additional reporting by Tingshu Wang, Josh Arslan and Beijing Newsroom; Editing by John Geddie and Miral Fahmy)