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Typhoon Hits Shanghai As Central China Deals With Flooding

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

At least 69 people are dead after record rainfalls and flooding in central China that began last week. Now Shanghai is being lashed by a typhoon. With us now is NPR's Emily Feng to tell us more about this extreme weather. Welcome, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So tell us about the flooding first. You recently saw some of it up close. Why is this happening?

FENG: It is the middle of rainy season in China's central Hunan province. But this year, a year's worth of water came down on its capital city, Zhengzhou, in just three days' time. So all that water turned city infrastructure, which was designed for convenience, into these deadly, underwater traps. For example, a subway route in Zhengzhou filled with water when rains began last Tuesday. It trapped hundreds of people inside. Here's a 15-year-old survivor recounting what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She says they were standing chest-high in water in these subway cars, gasping for breath because the cars were sealed. That kept the water out. But it also kept air out. She said her chest hurt. Her mother was facing an older woman who actually suffocated to death right next to her. They were rescued several hours later. In total, 13 people died on that subway.

MCCAMMON: Absolutely horrifying, Emily. And I saw there was flooding in other parts of that province, not only in the capital. Was that also due to the rain?

FENG: Some of it, yes. But some of the later flooding, and particularly the flooding that I saw over the weekend, resulted because of dams, so manmade construction, because when it rains a lot like it did last week, the reservoirs behind the dams overflow. And authorities in Henan province were faced with a dilemma. Do they let the neighborhoods up river be flooded next to these reservoirs? Or do they open the dam and flood the communities downriver? In this case, they were afraid of a dam breach. So they opened a big dam just north of a city called Xinxiang. It's home to about 6 million people. And when they opened that dam, it flooded the northern part of the city. Most of it's still underwater today.

MCCAMMON: And now a typhoon is hitting Shanghai. How is Shanghai holding up so far?

FENG: It's holding up OK. They do have heavy rains in some parts. And many flights into Shanghai are canceled. Some trains have been canceled. Authorities have preemptively shut down some subway stations, likely because they saw what happened tragically in Zhengzhou's flooded metros.

MCCAMMON: And do we know - I mean, so much extreme weather, really, around the world always raises the question, is this because of climate change?

FENG: So interestingly, Chinese authorities, including Chinese weather scientists, have not come out and said this is caused by climate change. They have called this extreme weather. And I should note that seasonal rains and floods are normal in China, particularly around places where major rivers run through. But climate change is likely exacerbating the effects of these rains. The storm that hit Henan Province, for example, hovered for three days straight on one city. So it was very, very slow-moving. And that means that extreme flooding will likely become more regular in China. For example, just over a year ago, I was in another Chinese province, Anhui, which borders Henan. And because of flooding and dam breaches there, I was covering stories that were so similar to the stories that I was hearing in Henan over this weekend. Last year, people also lost homes, lost their crops and people were swept away. So we should expect this kind of extreme weather going forward in China as well.

MCCAMMON: That is NPR's Emily Feng. Thank you, Emily.

FENG: Thanks, Sarah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAS OF YEARS' "LIKE TALL SHIPS UPON THE SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.