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Background: The Yangtze’s Wrath

August 12, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Phil Ponce has the flood story.

PHIL PONCE: Central China is accustomed to flooding. Every year monsoons come to the region from June through September. But this year’s flooding of the Yangtze River is the worst in recent memory.

The nearly 4,000-mile-long river is the world’s third longest. Since this year’s rains began, more than 2,000 people have died and almost 14 million people left homeless. An estimated 12 million acres of crops have been destroyed.

Two hundred forty million Chinese, almost equal to the population of the United States, have been somehow affected by the floods. Treetops are all that can be seen of entire villages. Authorities say it will cost billions of dollars to repair the damage.

On Sunday, the Chinese government tried to control the rising river by blowing up several dikes. The result: Water spread out along the flood plains and lowered the river table. This saved Wuhan, an industrial city of 7 million people in the Huber Province, but it also destroyed many smaller towns along the river. Some refugees of this year’s flooding are old enough to remember the floods of 1954, which killed 30,000 people.

WOMAN: (speaking through interpreter) The water came, and my house was destroyed. I had to get out. There’s no way to live there. When I was eight in 1954, there was another massive flood like this one. Now, I’m over 50, and it has happened again.

PHIL PONCE: Four years ago, construction began on the controversial Three Gorges Dam, a project aimed in part at controlling the river. But the dam won’t be finished until at least the year 2009. For now, thousands of homeless people are living in tent cities of plastic lean-tos, which have sprung up along the riverbank.

Six hundred thousand soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army and hundreds of thousands of civilians have been mobilized to reinforce the dikes with sandbags and sacks of straw. Officials have mounted a massive relief effort to bring food, water, and medicine to the flood victims.

The United States Air Force sent two cargo planes of essential supplies to the southern province of Hunan this week. And nature is not expected to relent anytime soon. The Yangtze is expected to remain swollen for several more weeks, and officials fear more rain will trigger yet another flood crest.