BEIJING – More than 4 million people remained without power Wednesday in storm-battered central China, as families nationwide began gathering for the biggest holiday of the year.
The worst winter storms in half a century 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, the only chance most have to see family all year.
A massive nationwide campaign to restore transport and bring aid to affected areas has allowed many families to celebrate the holiday with feasts, firecrackers and visits to neighbors.
But in Chenzhou, a city of about 4.5 million people, the scene was anything but festive, as residents endured a 13th day 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, and power would return for some residents beginning Wednesday night.
The military was shipping an additional 4 million candles to the city and other affected parts of Hunan, Guizhou and Jiangxi provinces, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
"The whole city is still without power," said an operator reached at Chenzhou's information hot line.
"Our center has power only because we have our own generator," he said, refusing to give his name.
Calls to other city government offices rang unanswered Wednesday.
Residents said hotels, karaoke parlors and public baths in the city were filled with people driven from their homes by freezing temperatures and the cutoff of water supplies.
Prices have soared for many consumer goods, cash supplies have run short, and only one city hospital was still operating with power from its own diesel generator, they said.
At the city's five-star Huatian Hotel, all 300 rooms were taken, mostly by local families paying the full 668 yuan (US$93; euro63) nightly rate, a receptionist said. Generators were providing 16-20 hours of electricity per day, he said.
"People have no heat or water so they're coming here," said the receptionist, who declined to give his name, citing company policy.
Another receptionist at the downtown Yuquan Hotel said generators there were able to supply electricity around the clock, although hot water remained limited. He said all 218 rooms were filled, mostly with area residents.
"We still have received no word on when power will be restored," he said.
Temperatures in Chenzhou hovered around 1 degree Celsius (34 Fahrenheit), and were expected to fall to below freezing Thursday.
Cold, exhausted residents stood in long lines for water and gasoline and washed vegetables and clothes in water from fire hydrants. Many shops were closed and prices of food, candles and charcoal briquettes used for heating and cooking had 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 53.8 billion yuan (US$7.5 billion; euro5 billion).