Residents of the Chinese capital were left reeling on Monday in the wake of heavy rainstorms, as massive floods engulfed the city streets in the absence of adequate drainage, stranding tens of thousands of travelers and evacuees who had fled their homes.
At least 37 people died in floods after the weekend storms inundated Beijing with 16 inches of rain (40 centimeters) that caused 10 billion yuan (U.S.$1.6 billion) in damage, according to official media reports.
"The rainfall has been very heavy; far greater than normal," said an employee who answered the phone at the Beijing municipal emergency rescue station. "There was no way the [system] was going to be able to respond."
The rainfall was the biggest since the ruling Chinese Communist Party began keeping records in 1951, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Twenty-five people drowned in the floods, while a further 12 died in building collapses or from electrocution, the agency quoted the municipal government as saying.
A resident who answered the phone at a restaurant in Beijing's Zhoukoudian district said that the flood waters had already subsided by Monday. But he said many local residents had flood-damaged and sodden homes to return to.
"The floors have become saturated in the one-storey houses," the resident said. "Everything is totally soaked."
"There's no one around now."
Authorities evacuated nearly 60,000 people from their homes as the waters continued to rise, official media reported. Xinhua said the Beijing downpour was part of a broader storm that has displaced at least 567,000 people and killed 95 people across northern China since July 20.
Beijing newspapers published photos of people swimming from stranded vehicles, soldiers rescuing trapped children and cars abandoned on flooded roads, with the photos and headlines passed around by tens of thousands of netizens on China's popular microblogging services.
A Beijing resident surnamed Zhang said that the rescue effort should never have been needed in the first place.
"It's always the same; people get together and pool their resources only after a massive disaster strikes," he said. "But they never ask themselves why the disaster happened in the first place, or why this sort of thing doesn't happen in other cities."
Netizens and media commentaries hit out at the capital's outdated drainage system that was ill-equipped to handle the deluge.
“The sewer system is a part of [the city's] infrastructure, right?” Wang Mudi, a television host in Guangdong, wrote on his microblog with Sina Corp.’s Weibo service. “Then how much money of the 4 trillion yuan flowed to the sewer system?” Wang wrote, in a reference to a 4 trillion yuan (U.S. $600 billion) infrastructure upgrade package during the 2008 global financial crisis.
The English-language Global Times newspaper, which has close links to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said the disaster had "exposed the vulnerability of Beijing’s drainage system to flooding, as calls for the local government to revamp the city’s outdated drainage infrastructure [were] renewed."
Beijing-based veteran journalist Gao Yu said Beijing's sewage system was nearly 100 years old in some parts of the city.
"The sidewalk [gutters] are all blocked, and the sewers are covered up throughout the whole city," she said.
Reported by Zhou Qianting for RFA's Cantonese service and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.