The Chinese word for tornado is longjuanfeng – or literally, a dragon coil wind. Like many Chinese terms it is poetically accurate, conveying the destruction that twisters can bring.
But that won’t be of any consolation to the residents of Yancheng, a town in the eastern province of Jiangsu, that saw a tornado rip through two of its rural counties last week, killing at least 98 people and injuring almost a thousand others, many of them critically.
Jiangsu is one of the most twister-affected regions in China, recording at least 20 a year. But the one that hit last Thursday afternoon was more powerful than most, with winds reaching 125 kilometres an hour. Houses were flattened, pylons toppled and a solar factory was ripped apart, spreading 15 tonnes of hazardous chemicals.
Xinhua described the event as one of the worst natural disasters to hit Jiangsu in decades, and the deadliest tornado to hit China in half a century.
To make matters worse, the area was also battered by hailstones as large as eggs. One 62 year-old local told Xinhua that it was like the “end of the world” with the sky suddenly turning black.
“I heard the wind pick up and ran upstairs to close the windows. I had hardly reached the top of the stairs when I heard a large crack and the entire wall was torn away,” he said.
The event reignited criticism of China’s meteorological service which failed to forecast the storm in Jiangsu. “What’s wrong with our forecasters, they can’t predict storms, earthquakes or stock market crashes,” complained one netizen on weibo.
Others defended the weather forecasters, pointing out that countries like the United States and Canada – which have tornado warning systems – still suffer dozens of deaths in storms every year.
Last year China’s central government banned unofficial weather forecasting services – seeking to try to limit public information to government-issued advice.
But there was a groundswell of anger over the tornado in Jiangsu after the Yancheng Evening News carried an article the day before refuting Wechat rumours that a serious storm was on the way.
The message was sent out by a man in Heilongjiang who was later detained for disturbing public order.
In fact, it now appears that he had no actual knowledge of the storm – he may have sent the same warning to people in other cities – but the Yancheng Evening News has removed from the web its original article that told people to ignore the prediction and pay attention only to the official forecasts.“You can arrest the man but you can’t stop the storm,” one weibo user responded, somewhat cryptically.
Days before the disaster, Vice Premier Wang Yang had warned that China faced unpredictable weather conditions due to the influence of El Nino. Last year the central government also published a report saying that “extreme weather events” were likely to happen with “increased frequency” as a result of climate change.
“In the last 60 years the hot days have increased, cold days are not as common, the dry areas in the north and south have expanded, and typhoons have made increasingly heavy landfall,” it said.
“Because our population is increasingly old and living in ever more concentrated areas it is more vulnerable,” it added.
Indeed, one of the grimmer aspects of the Yancheng tornado is that many of the victims were elderly because younger members of the community were away working in the city.
One 71 year-old woman told the Shanghai-based newspaper Sixth Tone that the storm had reduced her house to a pile of rubble. Her husband was buried by the debris and killed. “Us old people think too slowly. We didn’t think of running out,” she said.
Southern China has to bunker down every year during the monsoon season, which runs from May to July. But this year’s wet season has been more of a deluge than normal, with water levels in some rivers surpassing those in 1998, when calamitous floods affected 180 million people, the state media has reported.
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