2021-09-25 17:03:14 How Record Rain and Officials’ Mistakes in China Led to Drownings on a Subway

How Record Rain and Officials’ Mistakes in China Led to Drownings on a Subway

ZHENGZHOU, China (AP) — On July 20, the heaviest hour of rainfall ever reliably recorded in China crashed like a miles-wide waterfall over the city of Zhengzhou, killing at least 300 people, 14 of whom drowned in a subway tunnel.

Following the storm, regional and national officials initially suggested that little could have been done in the face of such a powerful storm.

However, an examination of how the authorities responded that day, based on government documents, interviews with experts, and Chinese news reports, reveals that flaws in the subway system’s design and operational errors that day almost certainly contributed to the deaths in the tunnel.

Zhengzhou’s problems can be applied to other cities in an era of climate change, including New York City, which shut down its subway on Sept. 1 due to a downpour that was less than half as heavy.

The flood demonstrated the threat that global warming poses to China’s fast-paced development model of the last four decades. It raised concerns about how well China’s cities, including its subways, can cope as extreme weather becomes more common. The subway in Zhengzhou only reopened on Sunday.

“We humans need to learn to dance with wolves and survive in extreme weather and climate,” said Kong Feng, an associate professor of disaster and emergency management at China Agricultural University in Beijing, “because there is no other way to stop it right now.”

The Chinese government now appears to be acknowledging local officials’ mistakes, as well as the possibility that severe weather events will become more common. During a visit nearly a month after the flood, China’s Premier Li Keqiang warned that the country needed to address any gaps in preparedness “to warn future generations.” According to an official statement, a government investigation team referred unspecified “acts of dereliction of duty” to law enforcement.

The subject has become politically charged. Social media platforms have removed posts critical of the government’s actions. Foreign journalists covering the disaster were harassed by a Communist Party organization.

Nonetheless, the images and stories reverberated throughout China before they vanished. Water raged like turbulent brown rapids outside a train’s windows deep in the subway tunnels. As the water rose, commuters struggled for air.

“I felt like I was just there waiting for my death, though I didn’t know how — whether it would be by suffocation or drowning,” Zheng Yongle, a passenger on Zhengzhou’s Line 5 train, said.

The 14 fatalities on Line 5 were only a small part of the disaster, which temporarily displaced 1.4 million people, but they struck a deep chord with the public.

On the night of July 19, Zhengzhou’s meteorological service issued the first of a series of emergency alerts that lasted until the following day. The alerts should have triggered the closure of all but essential businesses in Henan Province, which includes Zhengzhou, according to government regulations. The city did not issue such an order for unknown reasons.

On July 20, the rain culminated in a record-breaking cloudburst. From 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., 7.95 inches of rain fell, more than doubling the amount predicted for the next three hours. The deluge compared to a 3.15-inch hourly peak in New York City on September 1 and a similar peak rainfall during deadly flooding in Tennessee on August 21.

It was the heaviest single hour of rainfall reliably measured in the center of a major city anywhere in the world, according to Christopher Burt, a weather historian for Weather Underground, an I.B.M. forecasting subsidiary.

“The Zhengzhou and Manhattan downpours demonstrate that, as a result of climate change, existing calculations of the frequency of torrential rains may no longer be valid,” he said.

The Zhengzhou Metro subway system, including its pumps, drainage ditches, and pipes, was designed to meet central government drainage standards — but only for the type of storm that, according to previous assumptions, should have had a one-in-50 chance of occurring in any given year.

In comparison, Zhengzhou meteorologists estimate that a downpour like the one in July had a one-in-1,000 chance of occurring in a year — though China’s national meteorological agency cautioned that the country only has reliable records dating back to the early 1950s.

According to Mr. Kong of China Agricultural University, city officials had conducted emergency drills for heavy flooding but not for a catastrophic deluge.

“There are hidden vulnerabilities in the city that were never discovered before this disaster,” he explained.

A retaining wall built in an area identified by the city as prone to flooding more than a decade ago was identified as a vulnerable point in the subway system, according to officials. The wall stood next to a maintenance yard and at the bottom of a slope. From a row of 30-story apartment towers, a six-lane avenue ran down the slope.

Water sluiced down the slope as the cloudburst raged. The wall gave way. Water poured into tunnels used to bring trains aboveground for cleaning and repair, filling one of the system’s newest and busiest lines, Line 5.

According to the Zhengzhou Metro, the retaining wall collapsed around 6 p.m., just 10 minutes before the subway was shut down. According to social media accounts, there was flooding in the system prior to that time.

“If the subway had been able to suspend service ahead of time, casualties could have been avoided,” Mr. Kong said.

Water had already begun to swamp a train on Line 5, which circles the city center. Mr. Zheng, along with over 500 other passengers, were trapped.

The city of Zhengzhou has yet to explain why trains continued to run. The following day, China’s Ministry of Transport stated that subway train drivers could act immediately in response to safety concerns and then consult with their dispatchers later.

During the deluge, the subway appeared to be a lifeline for those who were still trying to get around the city.

Wang Yunlong told Chinese media that he and a colleague on a business trip from Shanghai decided to take the subway because they couldn’t hail a taxi from their hotel.

Despite the fact that Zhengzhou Metro had begun to close some entrances, they were still able to board a Line 5 train at Huanghe Road station. It only went two stops before hitting a snag at Haitan Temple station, where it halted for about 20 minutes.

At 5:50 p.m., the train resumed its journey toward Shakou Road via a tunnel that dips to become Line 5’s deepest stretch. As the tunnel began to fill with water, the driver came to a halt between the two stations. He attempted to revers the train. It was already too late.

What happened next was documented in graphic detail in photographs and videos shared on China’s social media platforms.

Some passengers were able to exit the train at the front and make their way to the Shakou Road station through treacherous water surging down the tunnel. Mr. Wang and Mr. Zou tried, but Mr. Zou lost his grip and was swept away in the torrent.

Witnesses described a slow and confused effort to evacuate the tunnels, while passengers gasped for oxygen near the train cars’ ceilings as the murky water rose. Rescuers were able to reach the train after the water began to recede around 9 p.m., according to witnesses.

The deaths prompted calls for those responsible to be held accountable.

Another passenger who died, Sha Tao’s widow, posted a message on Weibo blaming the subway system for continuing to operate. She described her desperate search for him in a phone interview the day after the flooding. She complained that the authorities took too long to find him after the subway flooded.

His and Mr. Zou’s bodies were discovered nearly a week later.

“The responsibility of Zhengzhou Metro is heavy and cannot be shirked,” she wrote.

Keith Bradsher contributed reporting from Zhengzhou, China, and Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from Seoul and San Francisco. Li You, Liu Yi, Claire Fu, and Amy Chang Chien all contributed to the study.

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How Record Rain and Officials’ Mistakes in China Led to Drownings on a Subway