After a long vacation in national parks in Utah where flash floods in summer times are a major contributor to the formation of local geology, one can only image how surprised it was to hear that a heavy downpour in Beijing claimed 37 lives in one night. Criticism of Beijing’s infrastructure aside, online discussions also raised two very important questions about the flood.
Question mark I: Was it the heaviest rain in 61 years in Beijing’s history?
The deadly rain has been widely reported as the heaviest in 61 years, but was it? The question was first raised by Zheng Yuanjie, famous children’s book author in China with over 3 million followers on Sina Weibo.
“Official source claimed the rain on July 21 was the heaviest one in Beijing in 61 years, with 460 millimeter of rainfall (about 18 inches). I’m 57 years old. If the rain was indeed the heaviest in 61 years, then it must be the biggest rain I’ve ever experienced. But I remember a heavier rain during the summer holiday when I was a first year elementary school student. At the time, we put our basin in the courtyard to play marine games. Later, my stories of Hong Ta Wonderland and Qi Qi Cruiser were all based on that experience. I just found records for that rain, it was 950 millimeter of rain.”
The post got some 7k comments, most of which were asking the same question as netizen 无言才对 did:” Official news said it was the heaviest in 61 years with 460 mm of rain. You are 57 years old and have experienced a 960 mm rain. Who is telling a lie here?”
Luckily, the Chinese internet is never short of netizens who are willing to do some digging. Someone found a paper titled “Revelation of the 63.8 Beijing Devastating Rain and Flood” by Li Yuhong published on Beijing Water Affairs in 2008. The paper detailedly described a heavy rain in 1963, exactly the same one recalled by Zheng Yuanjie in his Weibo post.
“…On the 8th, Beijing started to rain…in 24 hours, there was 464 millimeter of rainfall, more than two thirds of Beijing’s annual rainfall.”
Hours after netizens raised questions, Beijing’s Meteorological Bureau responded, saying that it was wrong to claim the 1963 rain was heavier than the rain on July 21. Why? Because one was rainfall in 24 hours and one was in one night. But do netizens care about the calculation? Of course not, because they have a bigger question to ask.
People in rain trying to pull out a submerged car
Question mark II: Why didn’t the Meteorological Bureau send out any warnings?
Should Beijing’s Meteorological Bureau send out text warnings before the storm, the 37 lives might have been saved. For the many residents in Beijing who receive tens of text ads each day via their mobile phone networks, it was ridiculous that they didn’t get any weather warning.
According to the Bureau director Qu Xiaobo, the Meteorological Bureau does have the ability to send out text warnings, but Beijing has a registered population of more than 20 million and over 95% are mobile phone users. Given the limited number of base stations and the dense population, it was impossible to send out a text warning to everybody in a timely manner. Their tests showed that they can send out 400 text messages per second at best and there was no way for them to warn everybody before the storm came.
Was he telling the truth? At least, China Telecom, China’s biggest telecommunication company, said no. In an official notice, China Telecom claimed that there was no technological issues with sending out text weather warnings to all its subscribers in Beijing because they have worked with other government departments in similar manners several times before. They also said that there was no text weather warning cooperation between China Telecom and the Meteorological Bureau, and that it required approval from relevant government organs to send out text warnings.
Fangshan, the most severely affected suburb of Beijing
To make Beijing Meteorological Bureau look even worse, netizens dug out a news article from 2004 titled “Beijing first to send out weather warnings. Promise to timely inform the public about weather conditions.” In the report, Beijing was said to put into effect its first weather warning system that would warn residents about hazardous weather conditions via TV, Radio, the Internet and text messages. The warning system should be activated if there is a rain with over 80 millimeter of rainfall in 24 hours. More interestingly, the report said China Telecom subscribers should receive free weather warnings under the system.
Even more ironically, a China Daily article from July 25, 2011 with the title “Should another heavy rainstorm come, Beijing has a plan” said that residents would receive weather warnings 3 days in advance, and that Beijing would invest over 2 billion in the city’s drainage system. Apparently, many things went wrong here in Beijing, but it’s hard to tell which is more wrong.
Screenshot of the China Daily article