Storm Recovery Slow for Southern China’s Rural Communities

July 24, 2006

China’s premier has urged local officials to redouble efforts in caring for victims of Tropical Storm Bilis, state media reported Sunday, underscoring concerns about lapses in responding to the storm that killed more than 500 people.

Premier Wen Jiabao on Saturday inspected the rural communities and other areas most heavily ravaged by the storm — a swath of Hunan province in which 346 of Bilis’ 530 fatalities occurred as the storm rolled over southern China a week ago.

“The top task before us is to arrange for the lives of people affected, ensuring they have adequate food, clothing, shelters, clean water and medical care,” the official Xinhua News Agency quoted Wen as telling local officials. He called the rebuilding of homes and factories a priority.

While Chinese leaders routinely tour disaster areas to show the government’s concern for victims, Wen’s presence in Hunan followed reports that officials there tried to cover up Bilis’ devastation. The province initially reported 92 deaths, but reported a higher toll after state television discovered and reported that 197 people had been killed in part of Hunan.

Wen promised new homes and other government assistance to farmers in the worst-affected village, Kuncun, where 56 people died, five are missing and 800 are homeless, Xinhua said.

“You have been hit by a once-in-a-century disaster and suffered a lot,” Wen was quoted as saying. “The government will help you build new homes, which will be better.”

Local officials have frequently tried to cover up man-made and natural disasters, fearing both Beijing’s and the public’s disapproval. Last November, officials concealed the extent of a chemical spill in the Songhua River that forced the shutdown of water supplies to millions of people.

Bilis wreaked surprising havoc.

Initially a typhoon, it weakened as it hit China’s coast on July 14 and was downgraded to a tropical storm. The storm dumped large amounts of rain across six provinces, touching off flash floods and landslides, sweeping away thousands of houses and causing 3 million people to flee their homes.

With China only halfway through the typhoon and flood season, Wen ordered officials to be prepared. He called for timely and accurate weather forecasts, preparations against landslides and the shoring up of banks of reservoirs and rivers, Xinhua reported.

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