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. Beijing's disaster response too little, too late: travellers

Chinese villagers walk through heavy snow at Zhangjia village on the Jiangsu border with Anhui province, 01 February 2008. The extreme weather, which has led to the evacuation of 1.76 million people, has caused 53.8 billion yuan (7.5 billion USD) in economic damage. It has also affected 105 million people, with dozens killed, according to official figures. Photo courtesy AFP.

Weather disaster lands China with 7.5 billion dollar bill
Massive snowstorms and freezing rain in China have caused 53.8 billion yuan (7.5 billion dollars) in damages and forced 1.76 million people to leave their homes, the government said Friday. At least 60 people have died as a result of the unusually fierce weather, said Zou Ming, the vice head of disaster relief at the civil affairs ministry. "This disaster has hit hard, has been wide in scope and has continued for a long period of time. It has caused destruction to an unusual degree," Zou told reporters at a briefing in Beijing. "The task of evacuating and taking care of victims that have seen their homes destroyed or damaged has been very difficult." Zou said 223,000 buildings had been destroyed and 862,000 others damaged. He described the damage to the electrical grid and telecommunication services as serious, and said the emergency evacuation of people stranded on roads and along railways had been an arduous task. At least 460,000 troops from the People's Liberation Army and paramilitary forces have fanned out across parts of China worst affected by the worst storms in 50 years. The weather has effectively paralysed the country's transport system since last weekend, leaving millions unable to travel home for the Lunar New Year holiday. Zou said the central government had allotted 331 million yuan in disaster relief funds, while regional and provincial government have also been ordered to contribute relief money.
by Staff Writers
Changsha, China (AFP) Feb 1, 2008
Many of the millions of Chinese hit hardest by a run of severe weather are venting their anger at what they see as an inept government response that was too little and too late.

Official propaganda has painted a picture of a heroic response to weeks of deadly cold and subsequent transport paralysis.

But people in this stressed-out city in central Hunan province say the government fiddled as the situation mounted, contributing to the crisis.

"If the (local government) had moved in a timely manner to get rid of the ice and snow on the highways, the traffic might not have been cut off completely like this," said Huang Qiuhua, one of thousands of travellers stranded in the city's train station after his train was cancelled.

The worst winter weather in 50 years has caused power outages and transport gridlock just as millions were trying to return to home provinces for new year holidays.

The freeze began on January 10 but it took the government until this week to take drastic steps such as mobilising the army to help relief efforts.

Such delays made a mockery of past vows -- made after such crises as the 2003 SARS respiratory disease outbreak -- to improve emergency response systems, Huang, 35, told AFP.

"The emergency response system they claim has been built up after the SARS crisis appears to be not working very efficiently," said Huang, a businessman who was trying to return home to southern Guangdong province.

"Official weather forecasts also have been inaccurate and that's one of the main reasons for the poor reaction by the government."

China's state media provided lavish coverage of Premier Wen Jiabao's trip earlier this week to Hunan and Guangdong provinces, where he apologised to stranded travellers and played up response efforts.

But Li Xiangxiang, a 23-year-old employee in a Changsha bookstore, echoed the sentiments of many in branding the visit a cynical propaganda stunt.

"It wasn't until Premier Wen came that people were sent on to streets to clean off the snow. They stopped once the big leader left," she told AFP while shopping for suddenly scarce vegetables.

"(Local authorities) should have prepared for such situations earlier and not wait until the Premier came."

Changsha and other areas of Hunan province have been hit particularly hard by the extreme weather, which has wrecked the travel plans of tens of thousands of people.

Now, food price inflation, which was already near historic highs, is soaring due to the weather despite promises by Beijing that it would be kept in check, she said.

The prices of some vegetables were up fivefold, she said, adding: "The government is not supervising this and they need to step it up."

For some, the situation did not bode well for China's vow to organise a successful Beijing Olympics in August.

"The government should deploy more people from the armies to help out and restore the electricity," said Zhang Yongfang, a 32-year-old computer shop manager who was stuck at the main train station in the southern city of Guangzhou.

"We have to be able to deal with this properly to demonstrate that we can also deal with big events like the Olympics this year."

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Winter Freeze Sends Shockwaves Through China As Cash And More Run Short
Changsha, China (AFP) Jan 31, 2008
Authorities in China on Thursday warned of more travel misery to come as millions of people struggled to get home for the country's most important holiday amid savage winter weather.

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