Updated: July 22, 2012 at 11:20 a.m. EST
The rain began to fall heavily shortly after noon and continued through the evening. Beijing is usually a dry city, better known for its sandstorms than its rainstorms. But in the summer, it can experience flash floods when heavy precipitation overwhelms sewers and storm drains. Each year generally sees some flooding, but this was the worst in recent memory. Weeks of unusually high rainfall meant that the city’s canals and reservoirs were ill-prepared to handle a sudden and sustained downpour.
The worst deluge was reported in the southwestern Fangshan district. While aiding in the rescue of five villagers who had been washed away, Li Fanghong, the head of a police substation, was killed when he touched a submerged power line. In the southeastern Tongzhou district, two people were killed when wind and rain caused roofs to collapse, and another person was killed by lightning, the state-run Xinhua news service reported. At the Guangqumen bridge, volunteers helped emergency workers tow a car out of water more than 3 m deep. The driver, a man in his mid-30s, was pulled from the vehicle but was already dead, according to Beijing News, a local daily. The death toll stood at 10 for most of Sunday until the Beijing government announced in the evening that the death toll had climbed to 37, including 25 drownings, six people killed in collapsed structures, five electrocuted by downed power lines and one person who was hit by lightning.
The flash floods come almost exactly four years after Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics, which displayed the Chinese capital’s ability to undertake vast and complex construction projects such as the Bird’s Nest stadium, the Water Cube swimming arena, the new international airport and a huge expansion of the city’s subway system. The success of the 2008 Games even led some people in China to joke that given London’s difficulties in preparing for the event, Beijing should also host this year’s Summer Olympics.
Official media praised the response to the flooding. “In the rainy night, the 100,000 cadres who helped with emergency measures, rescues and drainage efforts, and the countless volunteers and communications people embodied the most beautiful spirit,” wrote the Oriental Outlook, a Xinhua-run newsweekly. But the weekend’s emergency reminded some people that for all its spectacular development, the Chinese capital still has significant shortcomings. One widely reposted message on Sunday read: “The development level and happiness index of a place shouldn’t be measured by the height of its skyscrapers, but by the quality of its sewers.”