Beijing floods unleash online criticism of government

The heaviest rain in six decades left at least 37 people dead and raised criticism online about Beijing's infrastructure.

A car damaged by floods is seen after heavy rainfalls hit Zhou Kou Dian Village, Fangshan district, near Beijing July 22. The Chinese capital's heaviest rainstorm in six decades killed at least 37 people, flooded streets, and stranded 80,000 people at the main airport, state media, and the government said on Sunday.

For 16 hours on Saturday, sheets of unrelenting rain pummeled China’s capital, reportedly the heaviest storm in six decades.

By Sunday, Pan Anjun, deputy chief of the Beijing flood control headquarters, had tallied the damage. The Chinese newswire Xinhua reported that at least 37 people had died in storm-related damage or events, including 25 who drowned, 6 who were trapped in collapsing buildings, 5 who were electrocuted by fallen power lines, and 1 who was struck by lightning.

Some 500 flights into or out of Beijing Capital Airport were canceled. Reportedly 736 homes were flooded, and 66,000 residents in the hardest-hit areas had been temporarily located, many from the suburban district of Fangshan. At least 31 roads or bridges had collapsed.

All told, Mr. Pan estimated 2 million people were affected. And many of those have taken to online forums to express anger over what they see as ongoing lack of concern for proper construction amid Beijing's pell-mell growth – as well as for people's needs amid the storm.

On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media site, some residents suggested that China’s Meteorological Bureau should have alerted Beijingers to potential dangers through text messages sent via China’s giant state-run telecoms, China Mobile and China Unicom. Of greater Beijing’s roughly 20 million people, roughly 95 percent have cellphones.

The impact of the unusual storm was exacerbated by problems in the municipal drainage system. Beijing’s total urban area has doubled in a decade, from about 700 square kilometers (270 sq. mi.) in 2000 to almost 1,400 square kilometers (500 sq. mi.) in 2010. Many of the city’s newer drains are built to absorb up to 45 millimeters (1.7 inches) of rain per hour, but at several points the volume of Saturday’s storm was much greater.

“When the city hosts big conferences, there are guards at every bridge. But when the big rain comes, there are none,” wrote Dong Lu, the popular sports anchor and commentator.

“We hosted the Asian Games and Olympic Games,” wrote someone on Weibo going by the name Wen. “We spent billions of yuan to do monumental things. But now after after the heavy rains, we discover that we don't know how to build sewers.”

And as another concluded: “The secret of Qingdao, a [coastal] city that not afraid of floods? Its drains were built by Germany.”

Pan, the flood control official, estimated the total cost of damages to be about 10 billion renminbi, or $1.6 billion. More than 13,000 vehicle insurance claims have already poured into the China Insurance Regulatory Commission’s Beijing branch.

Kevin Chou contributed to this report.

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