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Rescue efforts launched after record floods in central China displace 1.2 million

A man pedals through floodwaters July 20 after rain in Zhengzhou in China's central Henan province. (AFP/Getty Images)

Wang Peng rushed to join flood rescue efforts in Zhengzhou on Wednesday, as the central Chinese city was inundated with record rain. But his volunteers found themselves overwhelmed, with streets turned into rivers.

“Once I got to the scene, I couldn’t help anyone,” said Wang, a 34-year-old logistics manager. “The water was too deep.”

Wang and other volunteers recounted scenes of devastation in Zhengzhou on Wednesday, as the death toll rose to 25 and more than 1.2 million people were displaced. Videos circulating online showed residents being rescued with ropes from deep, rushing waters. Large areas of the surrounding countryside remained underwater.

One of the hardest hit areas was the tunnel between two subway stops on Line 5 — 12 died when their train became trapped in rising floodwaters, the South China Morning Post reported. About 500 people were rescued from the underground tunnels in a massive operation.

Video shows passengers trapped in a train that was submerged by chest-high floodwater in Zhengzhou, China. All passengers have since been rescued. (Video: Newsflare)

Floods sweep Chinese subway, trapping commuters up to their necks in water

The disaster was severe enough for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to issue a statement Wednesday through state media, ordering authorities to give top priority to people’s safety and property. More than 17,000 firefighters were mobilized for rescue operations, according to the Ministry of Emergency Management, along with local volunteers and personnel from other provinces.

“The water outside is already up to here,” radio host Ding Xiaopei said in a quavering voice, pointing to chest-high water outside her subway window, in a widely shared smartphone video clip. “My smartphone is running out of batteries. I don’t know if this is my last WeChat post.”

Ding, a mother of two, was rescued Tuesday night after being trapped in the subway train for more than three hours, according to Jiemian, a Shanghai-based financial news outlet.

Late on Tuesday, Chinese authorities breached a dam in Luoyang to release floodwaters and lessen the pressure on the flood-hit region, according to the Associated Press.

Reuters reported that several Chinese companies rushed to make donations to the flood aid, totaling up to $300 million for the stricken region.

The flooding is a blow to China as it seeks to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. The country has largely returned its economy to its previous growth trajectory, although it retains strict border controls and continues to implement localized clampdowns when coronavirus clusters emerge.

Zhengzhou is a major transportation and logistics hub in China, and the surrounding countryside of Henan province is part of the country’s breadbasket. The flooding threatens to disrupt industry and agriculture in the region.

Yuan Yanling, who lives in a village outside Zhengzhou, said peanut fields were submerged, and farmers feared they might not be able to recover after the waters recede.

“It’s terrifying,” she said. “In some places, you can’t even see the corn anymore.”

Mass flooding has left terrifying scenes in China's central Henan province, where at least a dozen were killed when a subway line flooded. (Video: Reuters)

On Tuesday, there were reports of people trapped on trains and in standstill traffic on highways. Both Zhengzhou city and Henan province activated their highest level of flood response. The People’s Liberation Army sent over 5,700 soldiers and personnel to contribute to the the search and rescue operation.

The state-run People’s Daily newspaper called the rainstorm the “worst in Zhengzhou history,” with almost a year’s worth of rain falling in a single day.

Zhang Lanjuan, 33, a volunteer in Zhengzhou, said about 200 people were stranded in one neighborhood that she visited Wednesday. She said she saw some men swim their way out, but no women or children, and the water was too deep for the volunteers to enter.

“They had no electricity, no water, no food and no cell signal,” she said.

The heavy rain began over the weekend and will last at least through Wednesday night, according to China’s National Meteorological Center.

Pei Lin Wu and Sammy Westfall contributed to this report, which has been updated.

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