China mudslides: Rescuers dig with bare hands, shovels for 1,300 missing

China mudslides blocked roads and bridges on Sunday, leaving rescuers today to dig with shovels and their bare hands, occasionally finding survivors. Authorities expect the official death toll of 127 to rise.

Aly Song/Reuters
Rescuers searched Monday for survivors of the Chinese mudslides in Gansu Province. Armed with little more than shovels and hoes, rescuers are hunting for survivors, as relatives of the near 1,300 still missing trekked into the disaster zone to look for their loved ones.

Thousands of rescue workers continued to dredge through thick mud and debris in the Northwestern Chinese town of Zhouqu on Monday, managing to save some survivors of the devastating mudslides even as hopes faded for about 1,300 missing people.

With roads blocked by mud several feet thick in places and bridges destroyed, rescuers could not bring in heavy equipment to clear the sludge. They dug with shovels and their bare hands Monday, occasionally finding survivors who had not been buried. The official death toll of 127 seemed bound to rise, however, given the number of missing.

Soldiers used explosives to dislodge accumulated debris -- rocks, cars, and chunks of buildings -- that was blocking a river and threatening to drown the town. Reports said the water level in Zhouqu was receding.

Six thousand police, troops, and firefighters rushed to the area on Sunday, after torrential rains falling on the steep and barren hills of Gansu Province provoked mudslides that engulfed remote villages.

Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was in the devastated area, directing rescue and relief efforts in a repeat of his efforts a week ago when flooding forced millions from their homes in northeastern China.

China's growing disaster relief expertise

The Chinese government has developed considerable expertise in disaster relief in recent years, putting it to the test in earthquakes, landslides, and floods that have struck the country regularly. Mr. Wen, who has made a habit of appearing quickly at disaster scenes to show the government’s concern, and the military – which is always at the forefront of rescue missions – have earned widespread popular support for their efforts.

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The country has suffered a dismal summer at the hands of nature. Heavy rains have caused flooding in several regions of China; on Friday the Civil Affairs ministry said more than 12 million people have been evacuated from their homes, and that 1.4 million houses have been destroyed.

Before the latest disaster in Gansu, the number of people killed or missing in floods nationwide had risen to over 2,100, the ministry said.

Tents, water, food for those displaced

Beyond the immediate task of searching for survivors in Zhouqu, the authorities were turning their attention to the 45,000 people, many of them ethnic Tibetans, who have fled their homes and moved to drier ground.

Tents, blankets, bottled water, and instant noodles were arriving in the stricken area, and a mobile water purification station is due to arrive Tuesday to replace the facility destroyed by the mudslides.

Health Minister Chen Zhu flew to the region Monday, accompanied by nine experts to assess the situation and relief needs.

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