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World - Asia/Pacific

Officials stage mass evacuations in China's deadly floods

August 7, 1998
Web posted at: 12:50 a.m. EDT (0450 GMT)

BEIJING (AP) -- Driven to desperate measures by a flood season that has already killed 2,000 people, China on Thursday was considering the last-ditch step of sacrificing some vulnerable areas to the raging Yangtze River.

The decision about whether to break open some dikes along the river to protect key waterlogged levees could come as soon as Friday, officials said. That's when the flood peak was expected to hit the weakened Jingjiang dike in Hubei province, the hardest hit area.

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In preparation for a possible breech of the dikes, more than 300,000 people were evacuated Friday from land along the river.

"The worst moment of the year's flood control efforts is probably coming," the newspaper China Daily quoted unidentified Yangtze River officials as saying.

About 90 percent of the 2,000 people killed so far this year died in mountain floods, landslides and mud flows that swallowed houses and villages, Fan Baojun, vice minister of civil affairs, said Thursday. Nearly 14 million people have been evacuated, and 5.6 million houses have been destroyed.

Millions affected by flooding

To varying degrees, he said, the summer floods have affected 240 million people, or a fifth of the population.

Officials said they hoped they would not have to break open the levees, but were preparing just in case.

Main embankments that hem in the Yangtze -- at 3,900 miles the world's third-longest river -- so far have held firm, protecting millions of people and rich farmland from its waters.

But the flood peak -- the fourth to barrel down the river so far this year -- could force officials to flood an area south of the Jingjiang dike to protect the levee itself and other areas downstream.

"The possibility of flood diversion cannot be discounted," said Zhao Chunming, a deputy director at the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters. "Preparations have already been made."

"We will try our best not to divert water unless it is absolutely necessary," he added.

Other officials were more optimistic the drastic measure would not be required.

"According to the situation now, it doesn't look like we need to divert water," said Zhou Wenzhi, a vice minister of water resources.

Secondary levees along the Yangtze have collapsed, inundating swathes of farmland. Some deliberately were abandoned to take the pressure off major levees, said Zhao.

Hubei, among the worst hit provinces, declared a state of emergency Thursday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Rain in parts of Hubei and neighboring Jiangxi province in July was seven times heavier than normal. Flooding has also caused serious damage in northeastern China, in central Shaanxi province and in southern Guangdong and Guangxi.

Higher death toll feared

Officials feared the death toll could go even higher: On Wednesday, a levee that protected 35,000 people in the Yangtze city of Jiujiang gave way. Rescuers in speedboats rushed to pluck people from the water, the official Beijing Youth Daily said.

Xinhua said Friday that at least two people had died from Wednesday's levee collapse.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, torrential rain triggered floods and landslides in Seoul and surrounding provinces Thursday, killing at least 119 people, leaving 53 missing and submerging thousands of homes.

Uijongbu, a city north of Seoul, was completely cut off, with roads swept away, a subway line flooded and telephone poles downed.

Thursday's deaths brought to 268 the number killed or missing from heavy rains that have lashed South Korea since last weekend.

Copyright 1998   The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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