Homes in ruins, pulverised roads and a sea of mud coating cars, the once affluent central Chinese town of Mihe was still in shock Thursday as residents turned to food handouts and slept rough after record-breaking storms.
Devastated locals surveyed the damage as the rains finally subsided, treading carefully on smashed paving through tangles of collapsed electricity poles and wires.
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“I’ve lost everything, it’s all been washed away,” said one middle-aged resident, before bursting into tears.
Many had barely eaten for days, with water, electricity and phone signal cut off.
“Mihe used to be a lively, prosperous town but now it’s utterly ruined,” a 22-year-old university student surnamed Du told AFP.
AFP was given rare access to join a rescue mission in stricken Henan province, joining a large team of volunteers that drove hundreds of miles through the night to offer help.
With cars full of food, water and supplies, the Blue Sky Rescue team arrived at Mihe early Thursday.
Volunteer Wang Lang said they arrived in that town in response to calls from local firefighters about stranded residents, and worked with the authorities to “evacuate residents and recover bodies”.
At least two people were killed in their homes in the area during the storms, they said, as calls kept coming in throughout the day of other fatalities — including a girl trapped by a falling tree.
So far 33 deaths have been reported across Henan province during the floods, but the number is expected to rise as storms subside and rescue operations continue across a heavily populated area where communications have been severely disrupted.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected by the floods across Henan province, with farmland ruined by floodwaters and transport paralysed.
With many out of signal, a student from the province started an open-source spreadsheet for relatives to list lost or stranded loved ones.
The list, shared on social media, quickly racked up hundreds of names.
As their work continued through Thursday, rescuers with shovels and helmets battled a thick layer of mud at least a foot deep, trying to return some sense of normality to reeling residents.
“When I first arrived here and saw villagers scavenging for corn cobs from the fields, I felt very sad,” said one volunteer in his thirties, surnamed Zhou.
Ths smaller, one-storey houses were the worst hit, and Blue Sky helped to drive some of the elderly relatives out of the devastated town to higher ground.
Locals recounted stories of being pulled from flooded homes to safety, scrambling to higher floors and watching neighbouring houses come down in the onslaught.
“We couldn’t evacuate in time because my elderly disabled grandma couldn’t leave the house,” said one 16-year-old school student surnamed Zhang, who said their house had completely flooded.
“I was pretty scared I’d drown.”