China Lifts Winter Weather Warning as Crisis Winds Down

China lifted an extreme winter weather alert Wednesday as the crisis sparked by the worst ice and snow storms in half a century began to wind down.

By Wednesday evening, power had been restored to 162 counties, including the city of Chenzhou in hard-hit Hunan province, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Seven other counties were using temporary power supplies, Xinhua said, citing the emergency command center under the State Council, China's Cabinet.

The storms knocked out power to large sections of the country's temperate central and eastern regions, disrupting rail and road connections just as millions of migrant workers headed home for Thursday's Lunar New Year holiday, the only chance most have to see their families all year.

The China Meteorological Administration lifted a severe weather emergency alert issued Jan. 25 that had required regional offices to remain staffed around the clock, Xinhua said.

A massive nationwide campaign to restore transport and bring aid to affected areas allowed many families to celebrate the holiday with feasts, firecrackers and visits to neighbors.

In Chenzhou, a city of about 4.5 million people, residents endured 13 days without power or running water.

State broadcaster CCTV said crews -- including People's Liberation Army engineering troops -- reconnected the city to the Hunan provincial power grid early Wednesday. The lights came back on hours later.

Just to be sure, the military was shipping an additional 4 million candles to the city and other affected parts of Hunan, Guizhou and Jiangxi provinces, Xinhua said.

Chenzhou residents had crowded into hotels, karaoke parlors and public baths to escape freezing temperatures and the cutoff of water supplies at home.

Prices soared for many consumer goods, automated teller machines did not work, and only one city hospital was able to operate with power from its own diesel generator.

Temperatures in Chenzhou hovered around 34 degrees and were expected to fall below freezing Thursday.

Cold, exhausted residents had been forced to stand in long lines for water and gasoline and wash vegetables and clothes in water from fire hydrants. Many shops closed and prices of food, candles and charcoal briquettes used for heating and cooking shot up -- quadrupling in some cases -- because of shortages, residents said.

Power lines snapped and pylons collapsed under the weight of snow and ice that began falling on Jan. 10. The region rarely sees such extreme winter weather and has little capacity to clear ice and snow.

The loss of power brought electric trains to a standstill, stranding more than 5 million holiday travelers. Official estimates have put losses to agriculture and the economy at $7.5 billion.