BEIJING — Snowstorms that have battered many parts of China over the last three weeks have killed at least 60 people and caused billions of dollars in damage, the Civil Affairs Ministry said Friday.
The storms have already crippled transportation during China's biggest holiday travel season, leaving people stranded in cars on frozen highways, without heat and lights in homes, and fighting each other for rare train seats.
The freakish weather is China's worst in five decades and paralyzed the country's densely populated central and eastern regions just as tens of millions of travelers were seeking to board trains and buses to return home for this month's Lunar New Year holiday.
Between Jan. 25-31, a total of 5.8 million passengers were stranded throughout the railway system, said Zhao Chunlei, deputy director of the Regulation Department of the Ministry of Railways.
He said the railways would focus on transporting coal and restoring the capacity of trunk lines over the next 10 days.
Zhao and officials from other agencies spoke Friday at a news conference to explain the government's response to the disaster.
Zou Ming, deputy director of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, said the storms had caused 53.8 billion yuan (US$7.5 billion; euro5 billion) in damages.
"The power grid network has also been greatly damaged," he said.
The travel problems have hit hardest in Guangzhou in southern China — home to millions of migrant workers seeking to go home for the Lunar New Year — were a backlog has left hundreds of thousands stranded even though train service has been restored.
Officials are now keeping the would-be travelers further away from the Guangzhou station, apparently for safety reasons. Most were massed on six-lane streets that have been closed to traffic.
The government has been urging them to cancel their travel plans and stay in Guangzhou for the holiday. Some such as Hu Jiansing, a 25-year-old plastics factory worker, were taking a wait-and-see attitude.
"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, who hopes to go to Hubei in central China.
In addition to the economic losses, Chinese stocks fell Friday on worries over the impact of disruptions caused by the severe weather.
Zhu Hongren, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission — the country's top economic planning body — said the disaster had taken a toll on China's economy, but that it would be only short term.
"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.
Snow still falling
More bad weather was forecast, with snow still falling in four central and eastern provinces.
The crisis comes just months ahead of the Beijing Olympics, an event of enormous national importance that the Communist government has pledged to make a success at any cost.
Beijing, like most of northern China, has been spared the wild weather and was cold but clear Friday.
The weather has affected about 80 million people in one way or another, state media says. Power cuts have plunged huge cities into darkness, with parts of Chenzhou, a city of 1.2 million in Hunan, without power for eight days.
Photos posted on the Xinhua News Agency's web site and taken Thursday night showed blocks and blocks of buildings plunged into darkness, their roof tops covered in snow. The only lights were those of trucks on the street.
State-run radio said Chenzhou was like a "deserted island," with its shops closed and goods scarce. Fire trucks were distributing water to residents because pumps stopped working, China Central Television said. It said diesel fuel would run out in seven days and rice in five.
In Shanghai, authorities issued a rare blizzard warning Friday as a snowstorm that began at midday intensified. Bus service was suspended between the nearby city of Hangzhou due to ice and snow, state television reported.
Shanghai, China's biggest city, saw its biggest snowfall in nearly 20 years earlier in the week, with up to a foot of snow accumulating in the suburbs.
Mayor Han Zheng on Thursday urged the city's 20 million residents to try to conserve energy.
"Every bit of electricity we save in Shanghai will help tremendously the other parts of the country," Han said.
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