BEIJING – China's worst winter storms in half a century have killed at least 60 people — and 10 more days of severe cold, snow and freezing rain are coming, officials involved in relief efforts said Friday.
Big cities were plunged into darkness and stock prices dropped on weather worries.
Yet, while conceding at least 53.8 billion yuan (US$7.5 billion; euro5 billion) in direct economic losses, officials said the central government's emergency management system — put in place after the 2003 epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS — helped prepare them for the weather relief efforts.
"These past years we've been putting a big emphasis on emergency management," Zhu Hongren, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country's top economic planning body, told reporters.
"That's made a big difference, especially to communications," Zhu said at a rare inter-ministerial news conference to publicize disaster relief work.
Officials at the conference said that 60 people had died due to the winter onslaught, and that 10 more days of bad weather were likely.
The unusually harsh weather hit China's densely populated central and eastern regions just as tens of millions of travelers sought to board trains and buses home for this month's Lunar New Year holiday.
Some were cautious about travel, like plastics factory worker Hu Jianxing who wanted to journey 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from southeastern Guangzhou city to his home in the central province of Hubei — one of the worst-hit places.
"I decided I would come and check out the situation first, and then decide whether I will refund my ticket and try to go home later," said Hu, 25.
Iced-over highways were closed and train services had only begun to resume.
Millions have gone more than a week without heat or electric light after power cables snapped and pylons toppled under hardened snow and ice.
The travel woes hit hardest in Guangzhou, where millions of workers from the area's factories planned to travel to their rural homes — the only chance most get to see their families all year.
More than 800,000 had accumulated at the station during the week, as trains were canceled and the backlog of would-be passengers grew.
Many have since given up, heeding government calls to stay put and spend the holiday in the factories and dormitories. Officials are now keeping the roughly 400,000 who remain stranded away from Guangzhou's train station, apparently for safety reasons, with most massed along six-lane streets that were closed to traffic.
Railway ministry official Zhao Chunlei said 5.8 million passengers had been left stranded during the worst of the crisis on Jan. 25-31.
Zhao said the railways would focus on transporting coal and restoring the capacity of trunk lines in the next 10 days.
Zou Ming, deputy director of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, said the power grid was extensively damaged.
He said 223,000 houses collapsed under snow and ice, 1.8 million people were evacuated to shelters and 7.3 million hectares (18 million acres) of crops were destroyed.
"The disaster has incurred some considerable losses to the national economy," Zou said.
However, he said the disaster's overall scale was still less than massive summer flooding on the Yangtze river that claimed 4,150 lives in the last major natural disaster to strike the country.
Chinese stocks fell to their lowest level in six months Friday as investors fretted over the weather's impact on corporate earnings.
China's central bank issued a notice demanding branches ensure sufficient cash stocks ahead of the holiday shopping season.
Zhu, whose National Development and Reform Commission was heading an emergency task force of 23 government agencies, said the disaster had taken a short-term toll on China's economy.
"The economic fundamentals of the Chinese economy are still sound, and I believe the momentum of fairly rapid and steady growth of the Chinese economy will continue," he said.
Zhu said 22 national-level and 85 local-level contingency plans, drawn up in the wake of SARS, had provided guidelines for officials in dealing with the weather emergency.
"These (guidelines) have really boosted our nation's crisis management capacity," Zhu said.
Snow was still falling in four central and eastern provinces late Friday night.
Beijing, like most of northern China, has been spared the wild weather and was cold but clear, while Shanghai to the south issued a rare blizzard warning.
The weather has affected about 80 million people, state media said. Power cuts have plunged large cities into darkness. Parts of Chenzhou, a city of 1.2 million in Hunan, were without power for eight days.
Photos posted on the Xinhua News Agency's Web site showed blocks upon blocks of dark buildings, their rooftops covered with snow. The only lights were those of trucks on the street.
State-run radio said the city was like a "deserted island," with its shops closed and goods scarce. Fire trucks were distributing water to Chenzhou's residents because pumps stopped working, China Central Television said. It said diesel fuel would run out in seven days and rice in five.