August 8, 2023
HEBEI – Residents brought to safety in stricken areas of Hebei province
Editor’s note: Amid torrential rainfall in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, our reporter rushed to Zhuozhou, Hebei province, where thousands of people were trapped in floodwaters and waiting for rescue. He recounts his conversations with rescuers and evacuated residents.
A heavy traffic jam formed as vehicles lined up for more than 500 meters waiting to leave the highway at the southern entrance to Zhuozhou, Hebei province.
Many of the vehicles were transporting rescue team members, while some pickup trucks towed inflatable dinghies and motorboats.
The rescue vehicles, arriving from different parts of the country, bore license plates from Shanghai, and Sichuan, Shandong and Shaanxi provinces, among others. The drivers of private cars yielded to these vehicles.
I was driving toward flood-hit Zhuozhou on Wednesday morning, and set the Zhuozhou city government headquarters as the destination on my phone’s navigation system. Colleagues kept me updated with real-time information about the floods, and they also told me that the southern entrance to the city was the only one still open to vehicles.
After leaving the highway, I drove through village roads still submerged in floodwaters due to the heavy rain.
The water was not too deep, but traffic lights along the way were not functioning.
Zhuozhou is a county-level city administered by Baoding, with the Taihang Mountains running from northwest to southeast. The North Juma River flows through the north of the city, with six rivers, including the Yongding, the Xiaoqing and the Baigou converging in the area.
Xinhua News Agency reported that as of 10 am on Aug 1, 133,913 people had been affected by the flooding in Zhuozhou, with the affected area covering 225.38 square kilometers.
When I arrived at Runhe Street, Diaowo town, the road was severely flooded, and some drivers were turning back. I parked my car by the roadside, noticing that while SUVs could pass through the water, cars could not.
Sending a vehicle location to myself on my phone, I decided to proceed on foot.
As I continued walking, the water became deeper. Several backhoes, or excavating machines, were being used to ferry stranded people. Those on these vehicles held onto the excavator buckets tightly, afraid that sudden jolts might send them falling into the muddy water.
Nearby, a group of people stood in front of a store selling daily necessities, with some of the shelves already empty. I asked a middle-aged man in the store who was tidying up the shelves, “Boss, do you have any plastic slippers?”
He replied: “We’ve sold out. The last pair of women’s slippers were just bought by an old man.”
After stopping a truck to cross a waterlogged section of road, I proceeded along Fanyang East Road, a major thoroughfare in Zhuozhou.
Many people walking toward me were carrying their luggage. Their feet and suitcase bottoms were covered in mud. Their clothes clung to their bodies, soaked either with sweat or rainwater.
The weather was oppressively hot and humid, and I was sweating constantly. It felt as though I was in a giant sauna.
Walking against the flow of people, I noticed that those heading in the same direction as myself were mainly members of rescue teams.
Holding my camera, I stood out among the crowds walking in the opposite direction.
The water reached up to the knees. At road intersections and in alleyways, the water flowed rapidly, making it difficult for people to remain on their feet.
At the intersection of Fanyang East Road and Tengfei Road — a major junction in the city — I saw rescue team members in various colored uniforms shuttling between motorboats, bringing those affected by the floods to an embankment made of sandbags.
The embankment, about half a meter high, separated two areas. On one side there was muddy water, and on the other an asphalt road. Those rescued stepped onto the road, clearly relieved to have finally reached safety.
Some motorboats could not reach shallow water near an embankment, stopping about 10 meters away. Rescue teams were quick to assist, wading through knee-high water, pushing and pulling the boats closer to a human wall formed by colleagues on the embankment.
Rescuers in the human wall helped people — some of them carrying children, others their belongings — off the boats, taking them to a safe area.
This T-shaped intersection became a temporary dock, busy and chaotic, but with an overall sense of order prevailing as priority was given to rescuing those affected by the floods.
A tourist boat ferried 12 people recently rescued to the temporary dock before returning to continue the search in deeper waters. I followed the boat as the search progressed.
A skilled helmsman in the stern of the boat said: “We brought the vessel here last night, towing it on a trailer from the Baiyangdian Scenic Area. We’ve already rescued more than 80 flood victims.”
A rescuer in the bows of the vessel used an iron pole to push away debris that occasionally floated toward us. As we continued along Tengfei Road, the water was more than 2 meters deep.
When the vessel approached overhead traffic lights, the man standing in the bows crouched down for the boat to pass through. Large trucks lined both sides of the road, submerged in the water. One, with the words Zhongtong Express on its side, was partially submerged.
The water was murky, with plastic bags and bottles floating on the surface. The sight line was level with the rooftops of shops, and cars parked at the roadside were completely submerged. Speedboats brushed against the car roofs.
On the opposite side, motorboats loaded with flood victims continued to approach. Those on the boats gestured with clenched fists, indicating that our boat should slow down a little to avoid splashing them.
The man in the bows raised a thumb in acknowledgment, while applauding rescue team members in one of the boats opposite us.
The boat team leader said: “We will go to Diaowo village again to check. There are four villages in Diaowo, and many people must be trapped there.”
Poplar trees on both sides of the country road leading to Diaowo were no longer visible, with floodwater reaching the top of courtyard walls in the village.
Inside houses, everything was submerged. Through the windows, furniture could be glimpsed floating in the water.
A large pig and several chickens were floating on pieces of wood, while a group of villagers standing on rooftops waved for us to come closer.
The boat navigated alleyways in Diaowo, occasionally bumping into utility poles. The entire village was flooded and there was no cellphone signal. It felt like a remote island.
Liu Liu, a villager from Diaowo, carried her 6-month-old baby with the help of the rescue team. She climbed onto the motorboat from the rooftop of a room in her courtyard, accompanied by her father and sister-in-law.
“I only brought a few pieces of baby clothing with me — many other things are soaked and cannot be used,” Liu said.
She told her baby: “Don’t be afraid. It will be all right soon.” The infant’s crying sounded especially loud, breaking the silence together with the sound of the motorboat engine.
The vessel made its way through the village, but due to limited access, it was not suitable for rescue operations. Several rescue team members riding water motorcycles passed by.
The helmsman said, “You guys ride your motorcycles to pick up people in the village, and we’ll wait on the main road to provide support.”
The boat leader then teamed up with Blue Sky Rescue team members riding the water motorcycles — significantly improving the speed and efficiency of the operation.
One Blue Sky Rescue team member said: “Let’s quickly make two more trips to bring people to safety while there is still light. We don’t want them to be stuck in the village overnight. It will be unsafe without electricity if the water rises again.”
The sky gradually began to darken, while a thin mist rose from the water surface, reducing visibility and making the rescue operation increasingly difficult.
With no phone signal in the village, I was unable to send my report back to Beijing, so I decided to turn back, following a speedboat.
As we approached the temporary dock, I saw a large group of rescue team members anxiously waiting in the distance.
Upon returning to safety, I immediately felt at ease. Alongside me, a young man carried his pet cat in a backpack as he disembarked from the speedboat.
Glad to be alive while having experienced the aftermath of nature’s fury, I could sense the compassion and care of humans amid the relentless floodwaters.