Map of China showing provinces worst hit by heavy snowfalls and freezing temperatures
BEIJING (AFP) — China dispatched the army Wednesday to help millions of people stranded by snowstorms that have caused transport gridlock, crippled power supplies and hindered relief efforts, state media reported.
At least 460,000 troops from the People’s Liberation Army and paramilitary forces fanned out across parts of China where dozens of people have died amid the worst storms in 50 years.
“The People’s Liberation Army has ordered its troops to go all out to help those battling the heavy snow in the southern part of the country,” the China Daily said.
“The troops were ordered to give whatever assistance local governments required.”
The health ministry also deployed about 14,000 medical personnel to treat the sick and injured in hard-hit areas, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
China is intensifying its efforts to deal with the punishing weather, which has caused chaos on the roads and rails just as millions of people swamp the country’s transport system for the annual Lunar New Year travel exodus.
Xinhua said China was waging “all-out war” against the disaster as weather forecasters predicted still more blizzards and icy conditions into next week.
Army helicopters will try to reach those suffering from cold and lack of drinking water in areas cut off by the snows, state media reported.
One million police officers also have been deployed to maintain order on congested and icy highways where traffic has ground to a halt, reports said.
At least 50 deaths have been blamed on two weeks of icy weather and 78 million people across large parts of central, southern and eastern China have been affected, the government has said.
In a reflection of mounting government concern, Premier Wen Jiabao has gone on a public relations offensive rare for Chinese leaders, wading into crowds of marooned travellers in the southern provinces of Hunan and Guangdong.
“The weather has brought a lot of inconvenience to everyone and has led to time delays,” Wen was quoted as telling the crowd at the main train station in southern Guangzhou.
“This has been very hard on everyone. Currently every level of government is working on getting electricity restored, after that transport will resume,” he said through a bullhorn, according to a city government website.
However, signs emerged that the worst of the gridlock may be over.
More than a dozen major airports forced to close earlier in the week had all reopened by Wednesday, the Civil Affairs Ministry said.
Southern sections of a major north-south expressway also were set to reopen after ice-removal work finished Wednesday, said state television, which also showed long-distance buses streaming out of previously closed stations.
But travel remained an exercise in anguish for millions, and police reinforcements were sent to many train stations as tense crowds waited for rail services to resume.
“I’m not sure if I’ll get back (home),” said Xiao Zhou, a factory worker waiting at the train station in Guangzhou, hoping to head to his home province of Jiangsu far to the north.
“I’ve worked in Guangzhou for 10 years and I go home every year. I haven’t seen such a mess before.”
The China Daily newspaper warned in an editorial that many areas might not even receive basic necessities.
“With much of the transport web disrupted, it will be difficult to have relief materials delivered where they are most needed,” it said. “We will have to prepare for a worst-case scenario.”
The big freeze has sharply raised demand for coal while also crimping distribution.
The government has ordered a sharp increase in rail shipments of coal and power conservation measures to keep the lights and heat on.
But rolling blackouts continued in many areas as local electricity producers rationed supplies amid the coal shortage and numerous downed power lines, media reports said.