CHINA / National

Storm toll raises coverup question
(New York Times/Agencies)
Updated: 2006-07-24 13:47

The death toll from a tropical storm in southern China rose to 530 on Sunday as the central government dispatched a team of investigators to assess the full scope of the disaster, the New York Times reported.

Chinese soldiers try to repair a breached dike after the Tropical Storm Bilis in Zhangzhou City, East China's Fujian Province, July 17, 2006. [newsphoto]

The team, sent by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, is to determine whether the local authorities had deliberately understated the number of the death toll in the disaster.

The team was expected to focus on central China's Hunan Province, where officials initially reported 92 deaths from the storm, but later revised the number of fatalities to 345 people, the reports said.

The change has made local and national media in doubt whether local officials were hiding the true toll.

Faced with such public criticism, the Ministry of Civil Affairs announced Friday that those who are responsible for covering up the death toll and the number of missing people will be held accountable.

The full extent of the death toll began to be uncovered only on Thursday after a reporter from China Central Television, or CCTV, filed a story from Pingshi, in Hunan Province. The reporter learned that one village had reported 54 people dead or missing - even though Pingshi, which includes the village, had reported only 39.

"Lots of people tell me the number of the dead and hte missing rises to 300," the reporter was quoted as sayiing. But souces in the Hejiashan county reveal that the number of those hits 100,according to the reporter.

"The Zixing city is hiding the truth," the reporter said. 

In a separate report carried by the Legal Evening News on July 21, the local government in the flood-ravaged province immediately denied reports that local authorities are deliberately covering up the number of dead.

"There is a possibility of miscalculation concerning the number of the dead and the missing, but we have never covered up any cases," Binzhou government vice-mayor Chen Haiping was quoted as telling the Beijing-based newspaper on behalf of the Hunan provincial, Binzhou and Zixing City governments.

According to Chen, local governments will never acknowledge the number of the dead and the missing reported by China Central Television (CCTV).

Staff members in charge of publicity told the paper that some locals from the flooded areas are away seeking jobs or serving as migrant workers far from their homes. It is hard to make sure that they were at home or not at the time of the flooding. Some of the victims turned to relatives or families for help. Communication operations have also been affected by the flood.

"There is a possibility of miscalculation," the paper quoted them as saying.

Binzhou has started to recalculate the exact number and this will take time. But it didn't elaborate on a specific time frame, According to the paper.

In another development, the Ministry of Civil Affairs has issued a circular, appealing to local ministries of affairs to overcome transportation and communication difficulties in order to accurately report the number of dead and missing.

Tropical storm Bilis made landfall in southern China more than a week ago, raking the region with powerful winds as heavy rains spawned deadly floods. More than 8,600 inmates were evacuated from nine prisons. Railroad traffic between Beijing and Guangzhou was halted as high waters inundated sections of track.

Storms and flooding are seasonal occurrences in southern China, but damage figures made public Friday suggested that Bilis had caused heavy damage in six provinces. An estimated 212,000 houses were destroyed, while another 287,000 were damaged. Officials say that 2.95 million people have been evacuated. Economic losses in Guangdong Province alone have been estimated at more than $1 billion.

By Saturday, the official Xinhua press agency reported that the city of Zixing - which includes the town of Pingshi - had 197 deaths and 69 people still missing. Officials in Zixing blamed communication breakdowns and other problems for the initial undercount of the death toll and denied having tried to cover up the situation.

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