Extreme flooding in China’s Henan province has killed 33 and brought trains to a standstill for more than 30 hours.
“It was all water – no matter where you looked, it was only water,” said Ms Xu, from Zhengzhou, the capital city of the province in central China, which received the worst torrential rainfall on record. She asked to be identified only by her first name.
The downpour began on July 17 and reached its peak three days later. State media said the flooding was “unseen in 1,000 years,” and weather authorities issued a series of highest-level extreme weather alerts.
A whole year’s worth of rain poured upon the densely populated city that is home to more than 12 million people and a strategic location for Chinese agriculture.
Surrounding areas are also experiencing an unprecedented level of rainfall. Reservoirs in Xinxiang, a city bordering Zhengzhou, have reached maximum capacity. Authorities have ordered that water be discharged from all four reservoirs in the city, after evacuating the public from nearby villages.
Xu said escaping the torrents in the streets felt almost like “experiencing death”.
On her journey home from work on Tuesday, Xu encountered waist-high water.
“The water was flushing everything away, so about 10 of us had to hold our hands together to cross a street so we wouldn’t slip and be washed away,” Xu said. “It was so scary and I’m thankful that I’m alive.”
Posts on social media revealed horrendous scenes elsewhere in Zhengzhou including people being washed downstream as the fast-moving floods swept across the city and abandoned cars floated as owners evacuated to higher ground for security.
On Weibo and WeChat, two of the most popular social media platforms in China, pleas for help were widely shared, and volunteers compiled lists of resources for those at risk in case of emergency.
A video purporting to show passengers trapped in an underground train carriage rapidly filling with water sparked concern online.
A Weibo post written by a survivor from the disaster in the subway and confirmed by local news outlets said passengers had tried to escape the carriage and exit the tunnel from the platform. The flood water, however, soon rushed into the tunnel from both ends and they had to retreat to the carriage.
“After we got back into the train, we could see water from both sides rising fast, and soon the water started to fill in the carriage,” the survivor wrote.
“Gradually, the water level reached my neck and that was when all of us started to feel the oxygen was running out.
“With people starting to feel weak, and some even beginning to vomit, we all thought we were going to die there.”
Officials said 12 people died in the subway system as rescue teams struggled to evacuate all passengers. Eight remain missing around the city.
The heavy rain has also resulted in major transportation disruption, in part due to Zhengzhou’s central location in China’s vast railway system.
Some distance away from Zhengzhou, as railways sustained severe damage due to the collapsed roads, more than 30 trains were stuck. Some passengers said food supplies were running low.
“There is now only hot water – no more food left on the train,” said one passenger on a train that has been stationary for almost 40 hours about 20 kilometres north of Zhengzhou.
Rainfall has begun to ease off and the city’s drainage system is back in operation. Some major thoroughfares in the city have been slowly cleared of water and rescue teams are continuing their operations.
But within the city, a patchy electricity supply and a daunting task of rebuilding the flood-battered town has left many people planning to leave home.
Outside of the city, smaller towns are still battling days of heavy rain which is expected to last until the end of the weekend.
According to official statistics, authorities have evacuated or relocated more than 600,000 people in Henan province, and the direct economic loss has been estimated at over 1.2 billion yuan.
Floods in summer are fairly frequent in China.
Last year southern China suffered one of its worst flooding seasons in decades as heavy rain affected a number of provinces along the Yangtze River. In recent months, rainfall in the south-western Sichuan province has also caused extensive damage.
In the days leading up to July 17, there were at least five rounds of “red” extreme weather alerts issued by local weather authorities. However, those alerts did not yield any substantive immediate response from the local government or local communities.
In interviews with state media, experts said a combination of typhoons approaching China’s coast and the mountain ranges sitting in the north of Henan province blocking the clouds from escaping were to blame for the flooding.