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The Unprecedented Downpour
From 17th to 20th July, Henan experienced a record-breaking downpour. The resulted flooding took 302 lives, with 50 still missing at the time reported. 14.5 million people were affected, and about 1.47 million were relocated at the peak time.
Zhengzhou was the main city affected by this disaster. Before people saw the roads turned into rivers and cars swept away by water, the weather forecast did warn of continued heavy rainfall in the days to come. However, few people felt concerned at the time. There are annual floods in China, but mainly in the south or south-east. Inland cities are usually dry in the summer. The weather forecast failed to catch people's attention since no one expected a downpour like this. Unfortunately, another lesson was learned.
The Provincial Meteorological Bureau raised its level II emergency response on 20th July. Before hundreds of civil emergency rescue teams gathered in the rural areas around Zhengzhou, firefighters, armed police officers and soldiers from all over the country have been fighting against this disaster by guarding dams and urban hubs and transferring the trapped to safer places. But more people are needed, especially in rural areas.
‘‘The relation between official rescue force and the civilian rescue efforts is like the arteries and the capillaries in our bodies. They cooperated well in this flood relief operation and put their strengths in the right place. Together they covered the different vulnerable populations in Henan flooding.’’ Said by Wang Ke, the founder of Peaceland Foundation, who also led a rescue team and joined this nationwide flood relief operation.
Peaceland Foundation is one of the earliest groups that started the rescue work on site. Our local partner Shenying Rescue Squad worked in Gongyi County on 20th July. Our own emergency response team based in Beijing and other places prepared the equipment overnight and gathered in Xingyang County the next day. At the same time, our online fundraising program, which opened about two weeks ago for annual national floods relief operation, achieved the initial fundraising target and immediately supported our disaster relief team in procuring and distributing relief supplies for the afflicted in Henan.
During the 28 days of operation, our work was carried out by three operational teams. Over time, the focus has shifted from the emergency rescue in high-risk areas, the relocation of trapped people to post-disaster epidemic prevention and material distribution.
The first stage of our work focused on emergency rescue in high-risk areas and the relocation of trapped people. On 21st July, our team arrived in Xingyang County, a rural mountainous area in Henan. There, we spent 12 hours overnight transferring a patient with a chest fracture. Due to the road disruptions, we had to hike four kilometres and at the same time carry the wounded on a shovel stretcher. The road condition was tricky with landslides and siltation, yet we successfully kept the patient safe from secondary injuries. He met the ambulance and got treated in time.
In mountainous areas, there was not many people trapped but it was very difficult to transfer them. While in the plain areas, like Xinxiang, the situation was opposite-- the rescue and transfer were less difficult than in the mountains. But the villages were densely populated in plain areas, and the flooded area there was vast, resulted in a very large number of people being affected. In Xinxiang, the water remained was about 2 meters on average. Many people were trapped on the second floor or the roofs of their houses, without food, waiting for the rescue boats. Among them are the pregnant or new-borns, or even patient needs medication. Under such urgency, we worked days and nights and transferred almost 3,000 people (about 600-700 people per day). Very occasionally, we needed skills and specific tools to transfer people out of soaked or collapsed buildings.
When almost all the people had been moved to temporary settlements, we patrolled again as a final check that no one was still trapped or left. The rescue team then became more flexible in responding to more appeals than just human rescues. For example, we helped rescue animals from farms submerged in water and left dog food for the dogs in safety to wait for their owners to be back home. We have also used our powerboats to take electrical repair crews to their flooded workplaces and assist scientists in collecting corn samples for research purposes. In short, we go wherever there is a need.
In the second stage, we focused on post-disaster epidemic prevention to help the local communities meet post-disaster sanitation standards. We disinfected an area of about 1,960 km2, installed 50 water purification systems and covered 256,100 people. On 27th July, Peaceland Foundation launched a disinfection supervision and training program. We spent three weeks visiting from villages to villages, providing the local community equipment and training on epidemic prevention, water purification and epidemic monitoring. With our help, at least 33 villages from 15 counties established their epidemic prevention team.
A third disaster relief team dedicatedly worked on fundraising, selection and negotiation with suppliers, procurement, and material distribution throughout both stages. From the five online crowd fundraising programs on Tencent, Alipay, Sina Weibo, Waterdrop and Alibaba Foundation, we received 48.6 million RMB from more than 1.2 million individual donors. Besides, we also received targeted donations and disaster relief funds from Tencent and Waterdrop with a total worth of 3 million RMB. The money was used on life-must supplies and the epidemic prevention equipment, e.g., disinfection sprayer and water purification systems.
Working on Front Line
It took time to sift through the uncountable help messages that kept popping up on social media when working on the front line. One thing we wanted to avoid was going to areas where the relief force had been saturated. Once the situation has been verified, the elders, patients, pregnant women and babies are our assistance priorities as they are more vulnerable with their limited mobility. We also screened for the most appropriate rescue operation that is the best match for our rescue skills. For example, the rescue operation in Xingyang required a rescue team to cross a river. We knew that this was a job for us as not every rescue team had been trained for working in swift water.
Many readers are curious about what it's like to work on the front line. Nervous? Fear? Sympathy? Some of our rescue team members have been emergency responders for more than ten years. They said they barely had time to feel too many emotions when working. "My biggest anxiety every second was to hurry up and transfer as many people out as possible. The quicker, the better. I couldn't even care about eating, drinking, or sleeping, let alone having any emotional reactions. We trust our professionalism and experience with every decision and approach," said Wang Ke, "When we do our job, we focus on finding a balance between saving lives quickly and preventing possible dangers. But there is one thing that is quite emotional--many local brought us watermelon, porridge, tea… After ten years' experience of disaster relief, I am still touched every time."
Living under Climate Change
Since its establishment in 2018, Peaceland Foundation has been active in emergency relief operations for floods every summer: 2018 in Shouguang, Shandong; 2019 in five southern Chinese provinces, as well as cross-border assistance for floods in Iran. Although the situation is different from time to time, it is clear that extreme weather is occurring more frequently than ever before. Disaster prevention and mitigation is a challenge for everyone, from governments, civilian rescue teams and the public.
For governments, infrastructure upgrades, such as strengthening the resilience of tunnels and subways, may help. However, it is unrealistic to rely solely on infrastructure protection to cope with unpredictable extremes. What is more important is that a sensitive and systematic emergency response mechanism needs to be ready all the time.
For civilian rescue forces, like us, we should keep our training routine and strengthen our professional skills to prepare for more complex and difficult disaster rescue in the future. However, the civilian efforts are not just limited to donation, rescuing people or distributing supplies. A functional information platform, which collects and analysis both official and civil information to help plan rescue routes, is vital to unite the civilian forces and to avoid chaos. A well-established civilian rescue system also requires a more diverse range of civic mutual aid and citizen participation. For example, we noticed that many pets or domestic animals were trapped in the affected areas. In the future, perhaps there will be professional animal rescue groups to save lives while further reducing the lost caused by natural disasters. Involving more medical assistance in emergency response is also another challenge ahead.
For the public, everyone should have a basic understanding of climate change and be alert to extreme weather. Individuals should learn some self-rescue skills, gaining time for the rescue in emergencies.
Saying that, this downpour has already made many of us take our first steps.
Author: Li Tiange
Editor: Li Ling