Forecasters warned that new snowstorms would batter hard-hit central China starting on Friday just as a massive pre-holiday transport crunch showed signs of easing.
Snow was to hit four cental and eastern provinces, with parts of Hunan – already among the worst stricken – to see more than 15 milimeters (1/2 inch) over a six-hour period, the provincial weather bureau said.
The snow and below-freezing temperatures were expected to further impact agriculture, the electrical grid, telecommunications and transport, the bureau said.
While the snowfall was not particularly heavy by northern standards, the province rarely sees winter storms and has been ill-equipped to deal with three-weeks of near continuous snow and freezing rain.
China’s worst winter storms in decades have paralysed the country’s central and eastern regions, just as tens of millions of travelers were seeking to board trains and buses to return home for this month’s Lunar New Year holiday.
Cancellation of train and bus service has led to chaotic scenes at the key rail hub of Guangzhou as hundreds of thousands of migrant workers desperately try to board trains to travel home for the only chance many have of seeing their families all year.
Storms have wiped out winter crops, downed power lines and disrupted coal deliveries, prompting extraordinary visits on Thursday by President Hu Jintao to a coal mine and port to encourage increased production and deliveries. Power failures have stopped electric trains on their tracks, while thick ice on roadways has closed key north-south highways.
Dozens have been reported killed in accidents and thousands sickened by exposure – many of them trapped in stranded vehicles. Millions were without electricity and water supplies due to disruptions to the grid, sending the government into crisis mode to ensure deliveries of food and fuel and provide shelter and sustenance for travelers.
Officials planned to announce further measures at a news conference in Beijing on Friday afternoon.
With the addition of special trains, daily passenger capacity out of the key southern rail hub of Guangzhou had risen to 400,000, official newspapers said, although the station and surrounding areas remained packed with travelers unable to board.
To the relief of officials, about 60 per cent of the 19 million migrant workers in the surrounding industrial powerhouse province of Guangdong had simply given up, the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing provincial officials. Most would stay in their dorms and factories over the holiday, which starts February 7.
Ministries in Beijing have promised tens of millions of dollars (euros) in relief funds and subsidies. Much of that was to encourage ramped up food production in the spring planting season amid fears that food shortages would add to already soaring inflation.
At Guangzhou station on Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of desperate travelers, some hoisting terrified children or baggage over their heads, pushed their way onto trains as some rail service resumed.
Piles of suitcases, dirty blankets, duffel bags, clothing and shoes, were abandoned in the chaotic stampede, littering the rain-soaked train yard, the starting point for the vital artery to Beijing in the north.
A record 178.6 million people – more than the population of Russia – were expected to ride the rails. Most would be traveling in “hard-seat class,” in train cars with only upright benches covered in a thin layer of padding.
To control the crowds, police built a massive corral the size of two or three football fields around the train station plaza. Thousands of travelers were herded into the outdoor waiting area, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, pressed tightly against one another.
Cheng Xia, 28, a graphic designer, said he went to Guangzhou’s station the night before, but gave up his spot and went home. He swapped his large suitcase for a small carry-on bag so he could navigate through the crowd better. He also packed a tote bag full of snacks and a roll of toilet paper for the trip home to the western province of Sichuan, normally a 20-hour journey.
“The weather is still bad,” he said. “Once I get on a train, who knows how long I’ll be on it? We could get stuck for three or four days.” (AP)
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