BEIJING – China's death toll from Typhoon Saomai rose to at least 104 on Friday, with another 190 missing, as the most powerful storm to strike the country in five decades weakened into a tropical depression, the government said.
Authorities evacuated more than 1.5 million people from flood-prone areas before the storm hit land Thursday evening on the southeastern coast, wrecking houses and capsizing ships. Damage was expected to be widespread in areas that were still recovering from Tropical Storm Bilis, which killed more than 600 people last month.
Saomai weakened to a tropical depression Friday as it moved inland to the west and its winds slowed to 20 kph (12 mph), according to the Hong Kong Observatory.
The deaths occurred in the coastal provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang, where the storm struck land Thursday, the Ministry of Water Resources said on its Web site. It didn't give any other details of the deaths or the number of missing.
Earlier reports by the official Xinhua News Agency put the death toll at 98 and 149 missing. Some 81 people were killed and 11 were missing in the southeastern city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province, Xinhua said. In neighboring Fujian province, 17 people died and another 138 people were missing, it said.
Heavy rains and winds were forecast for the next two days for Fujian and Zhejiang, as well as the inland provinces of Jiangxi and Anhui.
Some 43 bodies, including those of eight children, were found in Cangnan County, which is part of Wenzhou, Xinhua said. They were discovered amid the debris of collapsed houses, Xinhua said.
News photos showed relatives weeping over dozens of bodies, which were squeezed into a room and covered in white sheets and quilts. Single-story concrete houses were razed by the storm, while others had their roofs ripped off by strong winds.
A front-page photo in the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper showed a woman in Wenzhou bracing herself against the rain and wind, which had overturned her motorized three-wheeled bike.
State television showed cars flipped over on rain-slicked streets, fallen trees and broken road signs. Evacuees sat listlessly in public buildings waiting out the storm.
"It is the strongest typhoon that we have ever seen," Xinhua quoted an unnamed official in the city of Fuding in Fujian as saying.
The official said more than 10,000 houses were destroyed and 80,000 others were damaged. Power was cut off in many parts of the cities of Fuding, Xiapu, Zherong, Fu'an and Ningde, he said.
Saomai had winds of up to 216 kph (135 mph) when it first made landfall, according to forecasters. The Zhejiang provincial weather bureau said it was the most powerful storm to hit China since at least 1949.
Saomai, dubbed a "super typhoon" by Chinese forecasters due to its huge size and high wind speeds, was the eighth major storm of this year's unusually violent typhoon season.
Saomai on Friday moved into Jiangxi province, which was the hardest-hit area when Typhoon Kaemi plowed into the region last month and triggered flooding and mudslides. In Anhui province, inland from Zhejiang, local official were evacuating residents in preparation for the storm, Xinhua said. It did not give details.
Saomai killed at least two people in the Philippines earlier in the week and dumped rain on Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, forcing airlines to cancel hundreds of flights.
Eight Taiwanese sailors were rescued after two ships capsized Thursday in a harbor in Fujian, while four Chinese were saved after their ship struck a reef, according to Xinhua.
Saomai is the Vietnamese name for the planet Venus.
China's weather bureau forecast a summer of powerful typhoons, saying a warm Pacific current would create bigger storms and weather patterns over Tibet would draw them farther inland.
Bilis set off flooding and landslides as far inland as Hunan province, hundreds of kilometers (miles) from the coast.
Most of the deaths from Bilis occurred in areas away from coastal communities, which are protected by dike networks and have long experience in evacuating flood-prone areas.
Farther south on China's coast, Guangdong province and the Guangxi region were lashed last week by Typhoon Prapiroon, which killed at least 80 people in floods and landslides.
Even as Saomai stormed ashore, Chinese forecasters were already closely watching Tropical Storm Bopha, which trailed behind it farther out in the Pacific.