Msnbc.com, Aug. 10, 2010
ZHOUQU, China — The death toll in the China mudslide disaster rose to 702 Tuesday with more than 1,000 people still unaccounted for, local officials said.
The new death toll — up from 337 on Monday — was released at a news conference Tuesday.
Rescuers digging by hand through mud found a 52-year old man who had been trapped for more than 50 hours inside a leveled apartment building in the remote town of Zhouqu, where local officials said more than 1,000 other people were still missing. Rescuers with sniffer dogs discovered the man, Liu Ma Shindan, who was in weak condition but breathing normally.
The landslides hit a remote Gansu province town Sunday, with a slew of mud and rocks engulfing swathes of the mountainside community in the deadliest incident so far in the country's worst flooding in a decade.
Engineers were battling Tuesday to drain an unstable lake created by the country's deadliest landslide in a decade, threatening new misery for the devastated northwestern region if it bursts its banks.
With Tropical Storm Dianmu heading for northern China — and expected to bring strong rains — the top priority was to keep the brimming lake from overflowing or causing a catastrophic collapse of the temporary dam.
Water levels behind the barrier fell slightly after controlled explosions created a channel to funnel some off.
"This massive landslide disaster left a 10-meter high blockage in the Bailong River, creating a barrier lake," the local government said in a report released late Monday.
Thousands of people have already been evacuated from villages downstream as a precaution, as the tsunami of mud and floodwaters would be almost impossible to escape.
'I will not give up'
In Zhouqu, grief-stricken locals were still waiting and weeping beside piles of mud and destroyed homes where relatives and friends were entombed, hoping at least to find the remains of loved ones.
"My niece is buried under there. She is a high school student, such a good girl," said weeping 42-year-old Yin Linfeng, who survived the landslide because she had been away.
"She was buried in the rubble when she was looking after my house ... I will not give up. I want to see her body if she is dead. It was all my fault."
The disaster struck Sunday as the debris-blocked swollen Bailong River burst, swamping entire villages and ripping homes from their foundations.
The region is dominated by steep and barren hills.
"There were some, but very few, survivors. Most of them are dead, crushed into the earth," said survivor Guo Wentao. Associated Press Television News showed the bodies of his younger brother and sister, wrapped in quilts, being carried away on a stretcher as crying relatives followed.
It was not known how many of the missing were in danger or simply out of contact as workers rushed to restore communications in the area, where one-third of residents are ethnic Tibetan.
Troops, police and firefighters deployed
Premier Wen Jiabao visited the disaster-hit town on Sunday to survey the wreckage, promise government help, console survivors, and urge rescuers and engineers to work as hard as possible to save lives and prevent fresh tragedy.
China has deployed all the resources of a powerful central government to battle a string of natural disasters in recent years — flooding, quakes and landslides — winning popular support for both the military and the leadership.
Some 6,000 troops, police and firefighters are looking for survivors, though the slurry of mud that devastated the worst-hit areas dimmed hopes of finding many alive under the wreckage, and complicated rescue efforts.
Over three feet deep in many areas, the mire has made it almost impossible for rescue teams to bring in vital heavy equipment.
As of Sunday night, more than 1,240 people had been rescued from among the debris or were plucked from the top of buildings where they had taken refuge from the onslaught. Over 100 were injured, 29 seriously.
Streams of refugees trekked out of the area, some carrying a few possessions they had managed to salvage, others with a grimmer load — the bodies of loved ones killed by the sludge, the official China Daily newspaper said.
Power lines were knocked out in two-thirds of the county. At least 45,000 people have been evacuated, including the residents of downstream towns thought to be at risk from a fresh mudslide.
But the situation has improved at the Three Gorges Dam. Late last month the water level at the world's largest hydroelectric project reached a record 518 feet, but it has since fallen 12 feet and the inflow of water has dropped dramatically. The maximum capacity of the reservoir built to end centuries of floods along the Yangtze River basin is 573 feet.
The Ministry of Finance has set aside $74 million in emergency funds for the region.
The Agriculture Ministry has also sent protective equipment and disinfectant to an area with large numbers of livestock — there are many nomadic Tibetan herders living there — to help battle possible epidemics caused by dead animals.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.