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Friday, August 11, 2006

Powerful typhoon kills 104 in China

BEIJING - Typhoon Saomai, the strongest storm to strike China in 50 years, weakened to a tropical depression Friday but drenched the country's southeast after killing at least 104 people, blacking out cities and wrecking more than 50,000 houses.

Another 190 people were missing after Saomai, whose winds peaked at 170 mph, battered areas where more than 1.6 million people were evacuated before it hit late Thursday.

Hardest-hit was Wenzhou, a coastal city where at least 81 people were killed and 11 were missing, the official Xinhua News Agency said. It said Wenzhou suffered $560 million in damage, including more than 18,000 flattened houses.

In Cangnan County on Wenzhou's outskirts, 43 bodies, including those of eight children, were found in the debris of collapsed houses where they sought shelter from the storm, Xinhua said. News photos showed relatives weeping over bodies covered in sheets and quilts.

State television showed cars flipped over on rain-slicked streets, fallen trees and broken road signs. Exhausted evacuees sat in public buildings waiting out the storm.

Saomai weakened to a tropical depression Friday, and torrential rains were forecast over the weekend across China's south, from coastal Zhejiang and Fujian inland to the poor rural provinces of Jiangxi and Anhui.

Much of that region was still recovering from Tropical Storm Bilis, which killed more than 600 people last month, many of them in mountain villages and other inland areas.

Saomai, the Vietnamese name for the planet Venus, was the eighth major storm to hit China during an unusually violent typhoon season. It was dubbed a "super typhoon" by Chinese forecasters due to its huge size and strong winds.

Deaths were reported in Zhejiang province, where Wenzhou is located, and neighboring Fujian province to the south, where power was knocked out in several cities, state media said.

More than 32,000 houses were wrecked in Fujian, Xinhua said. The government didn't immediately say how bad the damage was in Zhejiang outside of Wenzhou.

Saomai was the most powerful typhoon to hit China since a storm on Aug. 1, 1956, that had winds up to 145 mph, Xinhua said. It said that typhoon killed 4,900 people in Zhejiang.

"It is the strongest typhoon that we have ever seen," Xinhua quoted an unnamed official as saying in Fuding, where at least two people were killed. The government said the city got more than a foot of rain in 12 hours.

Ahead of the storm, about 1 million people were evacuated from flood-prone areas of Zhejiang and 620,000 from Fujian, according to the government.

More than 20,000 soldiers and paramilitary police reportedly were mobilized for relief work. The Fujian government said it sent 1,500 tents, 3,000 quilts and 50,000 pieces of clothing to storm survivors.

Late Friday, the government announced that it was allocating $21 million in disaster aid to regions hit by Saomai and other recent storms.

Last week, Typhoon Prapiroon battered Guangdong province and the Guangxi region on China's southern coast, killing at least 80 people.

Even as Saomai moved inland, Chinese forecasters were already closely watching Tropical Storm Bopha, which trailed behind it farther out in the Pacific.

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