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Thousands Trapped After Record Rainfalls Cause Flooding In Parts Of China

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

* Record rainfalls in central China have flooded cities and villages. Storms pounded the region this week, sending cars adrift. At least 58 people have been killed so far. But the death count keeps rising and thousands of people remain trapped in their homes in the city of Xinxiang. That's also where NPR's Emily Feng is and joins us. Emily, thanks so much for being with us.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: I'm glad to be on, Scott.

SIMON: Xinxiang is - has close to 6 million people. What are you seeing right now?

FENG: Well, much of it's still under water. The water is as high as my hip in some places. It really started pouring here Thursday night. It flooded streets, and then it caused tributaries of the Yellow River, a major river in China, to overflow. So even today, most of the city is inaccessible. You can get there by swimming, or you can hitch a ride on a bulldozer with a rescue team. A lot of people are doing that. You just flag one down, and then you jump in the scoop part, which is what we did. We rode in on bulldozers with residents who are desperately trying to bring food in. And here's one of them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She is saying, our entire block is trapped in their homes. Other families cannot bear to leave their possessions behind. And finally, some elderly people around here left carrying young children on their backs. And you can hear in the background that - you can hear the bulldozer, which is bringing both of us into the flood zone. Everyone seems to have gotten their inflatable boats out of the closet if they had one, so you see them floating around every few blocks - people just offering rides and food to one another. There was one good Samaritan who even gave us a ride on a giant inflatable unicorn, which he bought for a vacation a few years ago.

But anyway, this all to say, the scope of the flooding is huge. And it's Xinxiang right now that's heaviest hit, but earlier this week I was in Zhengzhou, the capital of this province and home to 12 million people - that was completely flooded.

SIMON: What made the flooding so severe this year?

FENG: Well, it was drizzly all week. And then on Tuesday, a downpour broke over Zhengzhou, the capital that I just mentioned, and it dumped one year worth of rain in just three days. Then the storm shifted north to Xinxiang, and it kept raining for three days in a row. Of course, there are seasonal rains, but just not at this level.

We've seen climate change all over the world to make rain like this worse. But in China, there's no mention yet of climate change is a factor. They're describing the storm as extreme weather. But in Xinxiang, it rained a lot, and the water had nowhere to go. The gutters weren't sufficient, so the water rushed to fill any underground space it could find, including traffic tunnels and metros in the province, which drowned some people. The military still draining one such tunnel, so the death toll is going to rise higher in the next few days. What's also made this flooding worse is dams upriver started overflowing. So to prevent the dam from bursting, they let the dam water go. And that's rushed into a river that runs to the north of Xinxiang. So a lot of suburbs and villages out are still completely inaccessible.

SIMON: More flooding forecast?

FENG: Well, thankfully, the rain has finally stopped. Today is actually a beautiful day. But the water remains, particularly in the villages to Xinxiang's north, and people are trapped there. They're right next to these streams I mentioned that have been completely inundated. The hope is that the water is going to drain, but I don't know where it's going to drain to. I mean, my producer and I today had to wade through streets that were often up to our thighs. And residents say it only dropped a few inches in the last few days.

So in rural areas, people are still desperately posting calls for help online. They say they're standing on their roofs. They're running out of water. The military has come in as well, as private aid organizations. But in other places in the province, there are signs of recovery. For example, in Zhengzhou, the streets have mostly cleared. So I just got back from Xinxiang, and I'm standing on one of these now cleared streets that used to be completely underwater. Actually, the canal right next to me collapsed. But you can hear Saturday traffic in the background. And actually, a lot of the traffic are these volunteer teams I mentioned that have come from all across the country to donate supplies and rescue people. So it's been a really heartwarming display of people helping one another this week as well.

SIMON: NPR's Emily Feng, thanks so much.

FENG: Thanks, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 25, 2021 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous Web introduction and radio transcript for this report misspelled Xinxiang as Xinjiang.