Death toll from NW China mudslides rises to 337

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The death toll from rain-triggered mudslides in Zhouqu County of northwest China's Gansu Province has risen to 337, with 1,148 others still missing, a local official said Monday night.

Chen Jianhua, Party chief of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, which administers Zhouqu, told a press briefing that families of the deceased will be given a special pension -- 8,000 yuan (1,181 U.S. dollars) for each death.

A total of 218 people have received clinical treatment and 41 people who were severely injured had been airlifted to the provincial capital Lanzhou, some 650 km from Zhouqu, he said.

Torrential rain on Saturday night prompted an avalanche of sludge and debris to crash down on the county seat of Zhouqu early Sunday morning, ripping houses off their foundations and tearing six-story apartment buildings in half.

The mud-rock flow has leveled an area of about 5 km long, 300 meters wide and 5 meters deep in the county seat with more than 2 million cubic meters of mud and rocks, severely damaging power, telecommunication and water supply facilities.

About 45,000 residents have been evacuated, as mudslides have destroyed more than 300 homes and damaged another 700. Moreover, 3,000 homes have been flooded.

Yueyuan village, which sits at the foot of craggy mountains, was reduced to a mess of yellow slush and debris with not a single structure left standing.

"It was not raining very heavily in the county seat Saturday night. We didn't know that torrents were crashing down from the mountains," said He Xinchao, a survivor. "Before I realized what was happening, the house was gone."

His 11-member family was reduced to two. "Just me and my son," he said.

More than 10,000 troops, police and fire fighters are still racing against the clock in the search for survivors in the debris of the town flattened by mudslides.

Rescuers Monday blast debris damming the Bailong River in order to safely release potential flood waters.

The rescue efforts, however, could be affected as heavy rains are forecast for the next three days, Chen said.

Many survivors sat helplessly on the ground, watching the rescuers' work and praying for miracles. Some desperately dug with their bare hands.

The provincial health authorities have sent 15 psychological specialists to provide post-traumatic counseling to survivors who lost their family members in the disaster.

Relief materials, including tents, food and water, are pouring into the disaster region.

Local authorities have sent more than 5,400 tents, 230 generators, 31,700 boxes of instant noodles, 18,300 boxes of bottled water and 21,400 cotton-padded quilts to Zhouqu.

Also, 5,000 sleeping bags from the Ministry of Civil Affairs have arrived in the region, while 5,200 more tents, 20,000 cotton coats, and 8,000 folding beds were en the route.

The Ministry of Finance had allocated 500 million yuan (73 million U.S. dollars) in emergency aid to fund rescue efforts.

At a press conference Monday afternoon, Minister of Land and Resources Xu Shaoshi enumerated several causes for Sunday's disaster:

-- the county's loose, weathered terrain that is prone to landslides and other disasters;

-- the massive earthquake of 2008 that shook the mountains around Zhouqu;

-- the sustained drought and soil erosion in the region since last winter;

-- the torrential rain that lasted more than 40 minutes and deposited at least 90 millimeters of rain Saturday night.

Zhouqu County sits in the steep valley of Bailong River, a tributary of Jialing River which meets the Yangtze in Chongqing, and is hemmed in by rocky mountains on both sides.

China suffers the worst floods in at least a decade this summer. Prior to the landslides in Gansu, floods and other rain-triggered disasters have killed at least 1,057 people and left 615 missing nationwide this year, according to the Office of State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters.

On Sunday, downpour and consequent floods hit eastern province of Shandong, affecting some 1.24 million people in four cities and 17 counties.

As of 8:00 p.m. Monday, 158,000 people had been evacuated, about 3,000 houses and 16,600 hectares of crops were destroyed in Shandong, which resulted in a direct economic loss of 520 million yuan (77 million U.S. dollars), according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

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