With heavy snow snarling much of China for the past three weeks, cutting power and disrupting transportation, people in many areas have been living in what they call "dead cities".
"Without water to cook and electricity for heat, life has become really inconvenient," said one freshman from Changsha University of Science and Technology, who had just returned to his home in Chenzhou, in southern Hunan. With the Spring Festival approaching, the student said, he didn't sense any holiday atmosphere.
In Hunan's capital city of Changsha, many shops, including several large supermarkets, were closed because of electricity shortages. Conditions in the city were similar to those elsewhere in weather-stricken areas. For example, at night, the city -- with a population of 4.6 million -- was largely dark, except for lights in a few hotels. Those hotels were full of families who had brought electric heaters.
For those who were not lucky enough to secure a hotel room, coal became a sought-after commodity.
Ms. Duan, who works at a construction site, was happy to be someplace with a stock of coal. "With the coal, we could not only get warmth, but cook as well," she said. She added that the price of noodles had jumped from 1.5 yuan a kilogram to 2.5 yuan. With the water supplies cut, Duan said that they had to boil snow for water to drink.
Chenzhou is the epitome of cities in 19 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions hit by the worst snow in five decades, which killed at least 60 people and forced nearly 1.76 million people to relocate, affected the lives of millions more and caused losses of about 53.9 billion yuan (7.5 billion U.S. dollars).
From Jan. 25 to 31, a total of 5.8 million passengers were stranded throughout the railway system and more than 8,000 cargo trains were affected, according to the railways ministry.
Bad weather also forced 380 planes to be diverted and delayed 5,550 flights, the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China (CAAC) said. However, airlines still carried 3.17 million passengers from the nation's 52 major airports between Jan. 23 and 29, up 11.8 percent from a year earlier, by flying larger planes.
The Ministry of Finance on Thursday earmarked another 138 million yuan for disaster relief, lifting the total relief fund to 431 million yuan.
The State Council, or the cabinet, has established a command center to coordinate contingency measures for coal, oil and power supply, transportation and disaster relief in snow-hit areas.
On Friday, the Ministry of Railways started a 10-day emergency coal shipping campaign, vowing to ensure a daily thermal coal delivery of more than 40,000 cars during the campaign.
China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) has deployed 251,000 soldiers to battle the chaos caused by the unusually heavy snow around the southern part of the country by 1 a.m. on Friday. More than 100 PLA aircraft and helicopters were on standby.
Thanks to efforts by a range of emergency service workers, traffic was beginning to return to normal.
The Beijing-Guangzhou railway line, cut off since last Saturday, went back into operation.
"I got on the train," said a tearful 30-year-old Tan Caizhi, who had been stranded in the Guangzhou railway station for three days. "There were thousands of people crowded at the railway station, and I was so afraid that disorder would break out. Fortunately, we have police to keep order and doctors stationed there to provide medicine," he said.
According to Guan Hongbin, a doctor with the No. 1 Hospital affiliated with Guangdong Pharmaceutical University, said his clinic received an average of 100 patients a day, most of whom had a cold or fever.
On the Beijing-Zhuhai highway, where more than 7,000 stranded vehicles backed up for 40 kilometers had begun to move at 9 p.m. on Thursday, water, clothes and food worth nearly 1 million yuan were given to riders.
"I have traveled through the southern Hubei section of the highway many times, but this disaster was unprecedented," said Xin Guocheng, a driver from northern Hebei Province. "I will remember the help of the local people and the government for the rest of my life."
Electricity was another priority, as the upcoming Spring Festival would see a power-consumption peak. Hubei Province has ordered enterprises to send their staff on vacation so as to reduce electricity use.
Back in Chenzhou, where people like Duan were still waiting for things to look up, more than 5,000 workers have been sent to repair damaged power lines. Two of these workers were killed and two others were seriously injured in the effort.
The cold was set to continue, according to the National Meteorological Center, which forecast snow in Hunan, Anhui, Jiangxi and Zhejiang Provinces on Friday.
(Xinhua News Agency February 2, 2008)