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Storm Exposes Gaps in Beijing's Emergency Response Mechanisms

07-31 13:28 Caijing
Communication and information relay at all levels during the recent storm in Beijing was subpar, despite the city's four-level municipal, district, township, and village emergency response system.

By staff reporters Zuo Lin, Shu Taifeng, Gao Shengke, Zhang Youyi, and Sun Tao

A recent storm that swept through Beijing July 21 and killed at least 77 people has exposed multiple gaps in the city's emergency management procedures, urban planning, and flood prevention. 

The torrential rain began at 10 a.m. on July 21. After a 10-hour-long downpour, a series of landslides erupted in the town of Zhoukoudian in Fangshan District. Panicked villagers came to each other's aide, sledging through mud, clearing high walls, and seeking refuge by climbing onto roofs and holding onto large trees. Fangshan was the worst-affected area in Beijing, with the death toll in the district climbing to 38 people due to massive flooding and landslides.

As the rain continued well into the evening, the Beijing-Macao-Hong Kong Highway connecting Beijing to Fangshan was forced to close due to massive flooding, while many roads within the district were blocked off. Heavy rains continued to belt the area, crippling communication, cutting off water and electricity, and causing some villages such as Pingyu to completely lose contact with the outside world.

Communication and information relay at all levels was subpar, despite Beijing's four-level city, district, township, and village emergency response system.

The flood control office in Fangshan did not realize the seriousness of the disaster until well after the storm began. Precipitation in Fangshan had already reached 100 mm when Beijing's rainstorm warning level was still orange. The district altogether received a record 460 mm of rainfall. Alerted to the seriousness of the situation, local authorities raised the warning to the highest level of red and sent out a notification to the entire district.

But as Fangshan lost contact with municipal flood control headquarters, gaps also appeared in communication between the district flood control office and subordinate township stations. The red warning was meant to be transmitted to the township level; however, a number of villagers interviewed stated they did not receive any advance warning.

In addition, as a number of village cadres waited for instructions from above, early opportunities to evacuate villagers were missed.

The effectiveness of village-level flood control to a large extent depends on the responsibility and organizational capacity of the village cadres; yet the majority of cadres failed to act, opting instead to wait for orders from superiors.

A number of officials in the disaster areas said that many villages became "isolated islands" during the storm. The Fangshan District flood control office stated that even as of noon on July 23, the office still had not regained contact with many nearby villages.

Before the flood peaked at the Juma River, none of the villages such as Xizhuang, Xihe, and Qiantouzhuang had begun evacuating people in advance. On the contrary, mandatory evacuation did not begin until 2:00 a.m. on July 22.

Floods and landslides in the district were further aggravated by man-made problems The banks of the Juma riverbank, from the first crossing in the south to the 12th crossing in the north, are lined with rural inns and fishing spots. Moreover, Caijing learned that for some time, stone factory scrap has been arbitrarily throsLuyin Village was separated from the river embankments by an enclosed wall; but because of poor flood drainage capacity, water became trapped in a narrow area until enough pressure formed to break through the wall and flood the village.

These constructions and dams hindered the river's ability to withstand flooding, and also increased the risk to local residents and visitors.

The government's decision to postpone releasing the death toll from the storm also led to widespread public criticism. The Beijing Municipal Government Information Office withheld releasing the final death toll at a post-storm briefing on July 25.

Beijing's Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters finally announced the news of the latest death toll at 8 p.m. on July 26. However, specific information on the victims has not been disclosed.

Full article in Chinese: http://magazine.caijing.com.cn/2012-07-29/111979154.html

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