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Rains bring new misery to China mudslide town

by Staff Writers
Zhouqu, China (AFP) Aug 12, 2010
Heavy rains on Thursday compounded the misery of a Chinese town devastated by mudslides that have killed 1,144 people, with new floods hampering relief efforts and the stench of death pervasive.

Thousands of soldiers and rescuers battled to clear roads blocked by cascades of mud and sludge unleashed by storms overnight, complicating the task of getting food, water and medicine to people in desperate need.

Six hundred residents are still missing after the disaster in Zhouqu, a remote town in the mountains of Gansu province in China's northwest, local officials 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.

The provincial department of civil affairs said late Thursday the death toll from the disaster had risen to 1,144, from 1,117 on Wednesday, state news agency Xinhua reported.

"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 told AFP. "We're worried."

Heavy rains fell for about four hours overnight, turning one of Zhouqu's main streets into a small river and flooding army tents on the roadside leading to the disaster zone.

At two schools in Zhouqu serving as temporary shelters rain soaked straw mats and carpets, forcing survivors to spend the night in hallways, Xinhua 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.

Crews spent six hours clearing the shortest route into Zhouqu from the provincial capital Lanzhou after it was blocked overnight by fresh landslides, Xinhua said. The road is mainly being used by trucks bringing aid supplies.

Some shops in town had run out of drinking water by 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 Bailong river, which cuts through Zhouqu, was running higher on Thursday than the day before, and flowing more quickly. State media said the level had risen by three metres (10 feet).

Troops were using excavators and explosives to clear blockages in the river and drain a barrier lake created by the rubble that could if it burst bring further destruction to areas already levelled by the torrent of mud.

Provincial authorities have evacuated areas near the lake, Xinhua said.

Fears of an outbreak of water-borne disease mounted, with corpses unclaimed and residents living rough in unsanitary conditions. Army crews in chemical suits were spraying disinfectant.

Nearly 800 medical workers -- also concerned that high summer temperatures could affect the precarious health situation -- have been dispatched to the scene, state media said.

Tonnes of garlic and Sichuan pepper, which in China are believed to guard against various ailments, have been sent to Zhouqu, state media said, citing local health authorities.

Doctors were encouraging relatives to cremate the remains of loved ones as soon as possible to prevent health problems, but traditional burials are preferred in the area, where the population is one-third Tibetan.

"We can't bring him home as his body is decomposing, so we're going to bury him here in the mountains," said San Fenlong after identifying the body of his 15-year-old nephew at a makeshift morgue that reeked of decomposing corpses.

Elsewhere in Gansu, eight people were killed and eight others went missing after torrential rains triggered floods in Chengxian and Lixian counties, Xinhua said.

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 incident.

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