ZHOUQU, China — The death toll from a massive landslide triggered by floods in China’s northwest has risen to 337, the country’s state media said on Monday.
The Communist Party chief of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu province also told the state-run Xinhua News Agency that more than 1,100 people were still missing.
The disaster struck Sunday as a debris-blocked swollen river burst, swamping entire mountain villages in the county seat of Zhouqu and ripping homes from their foundations.
It is the deadliest incident in China’s worst flooding in a decade.
Meantime, rescuers armed with little more than shovels searched for hundreds of people after a torrent of mud engulfed the town, tearing down homes and filling the streets with sludge.
Upstream from the disaster, demolition experts and geologists were working frantically to drain a lake that had built up behind a barrier of landslide blockage.
With more rains forecast for this week, there would be fresh tragedy if the unsecured dam bursts, creating a new mud flow.
The region is dominated by steep and barren hills.
Troops, police and firefighters deployed
Premier Wen Jiabao visited the disaster-hit town on Sunday, to survey the wreckage, promise government help, console survivors, and urge rescuers and engineers to work as hard as possible to save lives and prevent fresh tragedy.
China has deployed all the resources of a powerful central government to battle a string of natural disasters in recent years — flooding, quakes and landslides — winning popular support for both the military and the leadership.
Six thousand troops, police and firefighters worked through the night to dig out survivors, though the slurry of mud that devastated the worst-hit areas dimmed hopes of finding many alive under the wreckage, and complicated rescue efforts.
Over a meter deep in many areas, the mire has made it almost impossible for rescue teams to bring in vital heavy equipment.
As of Sunday night, more than 1,240 people had been rescued from among the debris or were plucked from the top of buildings where they had taken refuge from the onslaught. Over 100 were injured, 29 seriously.
Streams of refugees trekked out of the area, some carrying a few possessions they had managed to salvage, others with a grimmer load — the bodies of loved ones killed by the sludge, the official China Daily newspaper said.
Power lines are down in two-thirds of the county, and water up to 13 feet deep is still surging through some parts of town, the official Xinhua agency said. At least 45,000 people have been evacuated, including the residents of downstream towns thought to be at risk from a fresh mudslide.
The Ministry of Finance has set aside 500 million yuan ($74 million) in emergency funds for the region.
The Agriculture Ministry has also sent protective equipment and disinfectant to an area with large numbers of livestock — there are many nomadic Tibetan herders living there — to help battle possible epidemics caused by dead animals.