Beijing's Katrina: Floods Challenge Government Adequacy

By Samantha Kramer, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
July 26, 2012; 7:55 PM ET
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A man wades through a flooded street following the heavy floods in Beijing Saturday. (AP Photo)

Seven years ago in New Orleans, a devastating storm, system failures and inadequate response led to the costliest natural disaster in American history.

Last weekend in Beijing, a devastating storm, system failures and inadequate response have many China residents questioning the efficiency of their government officials.

Beijing's drainage system could not handle the 10-hour-long downpour that piled up to an average of 9 inches of water in the city. The disaster is similar to Hurricane Katrina that struck New Orleans in 2005, said Sam Crane, a Chinese philosophy scholar and political science professor at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. More could, and should, have been done, he said.

Massive flooding in a sewage system that needed major maintenance and upgrades had people raising questions about whether the lack of emergency response will doom the society's trust in their leaders.

China officials are reporting a death toll of 37 in the disaster that affected more than 800,000 people, which Crane said has created an uproar in the Chinese community. It is the worst flood Beijing has seen since record-keeping began six decades ago.

Like Katrina, the flood's aftermath has pointed out major weaknesses that need to be addressed, Crane said, including government attempts to censor information.

"The initial reaction of their government is to try to spin everything and to show the government in the best light," Crane said. "There's been lots of chat about the fact that the real number of deaths is not what they say it is."

Complaints have surfaced on China's social media site called Weibo, which is like the Chinese version of Twitter, Crane said. According to China.org, Weibo user "Brother Zhang Xiaohua" wrote that, "The situation of the sewers reflects the real quality of the city's infrastructure."

A man carries a woman past a car submerged in Beijing's floodwaters, created from the heaviest rains to hit Beijing in 60 years. (AP Photo)

Beijing averages less than one tropical cyclone every three years, while Hong Kong's province can get up to three cyclones per year, said AccuWeather.com Meteorologist Brian Edwards. The area isn't prone to heavy amounts of rainfall, but that's not what is causing the backlash, Crane said.

"Weather events and floods happen all the time in China, but Beijing is the capital," Crane said. "It's in the capital where you think the best infrastructural stuff would be done, and it turns out they wouldn't pay attention to drainage - the most basic thing. And people died from that."

At a time when the government could have redeemed itself, it failed, said Chinese social commentator and blogger Li Chengpeng.

"The government completely failed to realize that this was a good opportunity...to do something that earns the good will of the public," Chengpeng wrote in his Chinasmack.com blog titled "Beijing Rainstorm Reveals Humanity and Truth."

"Even if it were booking hourly rate rooms at chain hotels near those trapped...It never crossed their minds, just as it never crossed their minds that in addition to dressing up the city and making it pretty, they should've also built a functional drainage system."

The rain and flooding also created power outages throughout the city and cost Beijing $1.6 billion, according to Beijing flood control and drought relief headquarters.

The official China news agency Xinhua reported that local villages are setting up relief tents for flood victims in the southwest Fangshan District, the worst-hit area in Beijing, and disaster efforts are still ongoing city-wide. But with Beijing's urban areas covered in paved roadways, it is difficult for the impermeable surfaces to infiltrate the rainwater.

AccuWeather.com forecasts more rain throughout the remainder of the week for Beijing, which could lead to additional flash flooding on the already waterlogged grounds and mudslides in the capital's mountainous regions.

The Chinese Vice Premier has pressed for more disaster relief efforts from local authorities, and said in a Xinhua statement that, "We are now at a critical period for flood control, and every region and government department must attach more attention to combating floods and providing disaster relief."

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