, ZHOUQU, Aug 12 – Heavy rains on Thursday compounded the misery of a Chinese town devastated by mudslides that have killed over 1,100, with new floods leaving hundreds missing and the stench of death pervasive.
Thousands of soldiers and rescuers at the scene were battling to clean up roads blocked by cascades of mud and sludge unleashed by storms overnight, complicating the task of getting food, water and medicine to those in need.
So far, 1,117 people have been confirmed dead in the disaster in Zhouqu, a town nestled in the mountains of Gansu province in China\’s northwest.
Another 627 residents went missing at the weekend, with three more overnight when six houses were swept away in the new downpours, state media said.
"The rain has had an impact on rescue work. It\’s hindering the distribution of drinking water," Han Huiping, a 25-year-old firefighter from a nearby town working on the relief effort, told AFP. "We\’re worried."
Soldiers and residents told AFP that heavy rains fell for about four hours overnight, turning one of the main streets in Zhouqu into a small river and flooding army tents on the roadside leading into the disaster zone.
At temporary shelters at two schools in Zhouqu, rain soaked straw mats and carpets, leading survivors to spend the night in the hallways, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
As rain fell intermittently Thursday, workers used diggers to clear the massive avalanche of mud and rocks that split the town in two at the weekend. The peaks surrounding the town were shrouded in dark clouds.
The shortest route into Zhouqu from the provincial capital Lanzhou, mainly being used by relief crews, was blocked, Xinhua said.
Some shops in town had run out of drinking water before noon, but new supplies appeared to be trickling in, an AFP correspondent witnessed.
"We\’re really worried, but there is nothing much we can do," said one villager who asked not to be named.
The bad weather was expected to continue at least through Friday.
The water level in the Bailong river, which cuts through Zhouqu, was higher on Thursday than the day before, and flowing more quickly, an AFP correspondent saw. State media said the level had risen by three metres.
Troops were using excavators and explosives to clear blockages in the river and drain a barrier lake created by the rubble that, if it were to burst, could bring further destruction to areas already levelled by the torrent of mud.
Officials insisted the risk had been minimised.
"The danger of the barrier lake collapsing suddenly has been basically eliminated," the vice-minister of water resources, Jiao Yong, told a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday.
Provincial authorities have nevertheless evacuated areas near the lake, Xinhua said.
The mudslides levelled an area five kilometres (three miles) long and 300 metres wide. Floodwaters up to three storeys high have submerged half the county.
Fears of an outbreak of water-borne disease mounted, with corpses unclaimed and residents living in the rough without proper sanitary conditions. Army crews in chemical suits repeatedly sprayed disinfectant in the area.
Nearly 800 medical workers — also concerned that high summer temperatures could affect the precarious public health situation — have been dispatched to the scene, state media said.
Tons of garlic and Sichuan pepper, which some believe to be helpful in the prevention of certain ailments, have been sent to Zhouqu, state media said, citing local health authorities.
Doctors were encouraging relatives to cremate the remains of their loved ones as soon as possible to prevent health problems, but traditional burials are preferred in the area with a population that is one-third Ticapitalfmnewn.
"We can\’t bring him home as his body is decomposing, so we\’re going to bury him somewhere here in the mountains," said San Fenlong, after identifying the body of his 15-year-old nephew at a makeshift morgue, which reeked of death.
Loudspeakers in town broadcast messages instructing residents how to protect themselves from disease. So far, no major problems have been reported.
Senior health ministry official Zhang Guoxin said Wednesday that a priority would be to rebuild hospitals and clinics as soon as possible.
The mudslides are the latest in a string of weather-related disasters as China battles its worst flooding in a decade. More than 2,100 people were left dead or missing and 12 million evacuated before the Gansu tragedy.