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Government flood warning in China was too little, too late, survivors say

All day Tuesday, Gao Longtao’s phone kept buzzing with alerts from the local government: Heavy rains would be pelting his hometown, Xingtai, about 220 miles southwest of Beijing, the notices said.

The rain came in sheets. But even when the electricity went out at about 10 p.m., no one in his village, Daxian, had any inkling of the inundation soon to come. Most people, he said, simply went to bed, apparently hoping the thunderclouds would soon pass.

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, loudspeakers in the neighborhood suddenly blared with a warning: A flood from the nearby Qili River was imminent. But there was no time to act, Gao said. Within moments, a rush of water surged into his home.

“The flood came in so fast, adults couldn’t even protect themselves, let alone protect babies,” said the college student, who was home on summer vacation.

In the pitch black, Gao was swept into the surging waters. Somehow, he found a tree and clung to it for his life. “I was extremely scared, but I’m only 21. I have to survive, for my family,” he said.

At about 6 a.m., when the dark of night and waters began to recede, Gao was able to make his way to land and find his parents and 10-year-old brother, who had weathered the storm by clambering to the rooftop of their house. Though he’s thankful they all survived, he’s impatient for answers.

As of midday Sunday, 34 of Gao’s fellow Xingtai citizens had been confirmed dead, and another 13 are still missing, giving the city the ignominious distinction of being the locality to suffer the gravest human toll of last week’s intense storms. At least 200 people across China died in last week’s heavy rains, including at least 130 in Hebei province, where Xingtai is located.

At a news conference on Saturday night, Xingtai’s mayor and other officials offered their remorse for not doing more to protect residents and bowed to citizens in apology. But Gao is not satisfied.

“Villagers and I think the apology from the mayor is only a political show to reduce his political mistakes; it’s useless,” Gao said Sunday in a phone interview. “He didn’t do anything helpful to us. My house is destroyed, and some families even lost their sons and daughters. We need the government to help us and give us confidence to rebuild our home.”

On Sunday, four officials were suspended from their posts because of their inadequate performance during the floods. Among them was Duan Xiaoyong, a senior Communist Party official in charge of an economic development zone in Xingtai that includes Daxian. On Sunday, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang dispatched State Councilor Wang Yong to Hebei province to oversee the disaster relief efforts.

At least 110 people remain missing in Hebei, and more than 300,000 people, including Gao have been evacuated. In Xingtai, more than 28,000 homes were destroyed, more than 8,000 seriously damaged and more than 16,000 moderately damaged, the official New China News Agency reported Sunday.

Six reservoirs in Xingtai remained at critically high levels on Sunday, the agency added. More heavy rains are forecast for Sunday night, Monday and Tuesday.

Gao studies engineering at the Hebei University of Water Resources and Electric Engineering in Cangzhou. The warnings he received by phone, he said, were inadequate. “The messages didn’t mention … the coming flood,” he said.

Gao and others say they weren’t given nearly enough time to evacuate, and after they were caught up in the surge, there was almost no one to help save them.

“I saw only a few soldiers there to help us,” he said. “The rescue effort [immediately after the flood] was very limited. Most of us rescued ourselves.”  

Another villager, who would only identify herself by her surname, Yang, said in a phone interview Sunday that her 3-year-old niece was still missing. The toddler, named Zhang Ziyang, was swept out of her house with her parents about the same time as Gao. Since then, Yang and the girl’s parents have been searching for the little girl.

“We have no clue where she is, but we’ll search for her in the cornfields, in the mud and in the water until we find her,” she said.

Many of the victims in Daxian were children under 10, or elderly residents.

Most of the residents of Daxian, Gao said, work for small manufacturers and engage in farming, mainly growing corn and wheat. His family farms and processes wood for making beds.

After the flood, his family took shelter in a public auditorium. Later, his family went to check on their home and belongings; Gao went to a hospital to be treated for bruises and injuries to his legs and was still there as of Sunday afternoon.

What comes next is unclear.

“Our house was destroyed. Our stock of wood boards were destroyed too,” he said. “The car might be OK, but it too will need to be repaired.”  

Yingzhi Yang and Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report. 

julie.makinen@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @JulieMakLAT.

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