TONGREN, China (Reuters) - Power supplies knocked out by fierce winter weather were being restored for millions of Chinese at the start of the Lunar New Year holiday on Wednesday, state media said, but residents in one city were skeptical.
Scores have died in snow-related accidents in the run-up to the holiday, one of the greatest annual migrations of humanity, with the usual travel chaos compounded by the coldest winter in 100 years across vast swathes of the south, centre and east.
Chenzhou, a city in the central province of Hunan and the worst hit, was getting its power back after being blacked out for 11 days, Xinhua news agency said.
But a resident surnamed Cao who lives in the old part of town begged to differ.
“It’s pitch black here,” he told Reuters. “We don’t have electricity. Over at my sister’s house they have electricity but they were told it would be off later. We were told it would be on by 6, but there’s nothing yet.”
Another Chenzhou resident said: “A small number of places have electricity.”
About 1,000 pylons and poles in the region had collapsed under the weight of ice and snow, which means the local grid, that took decades to build, had effectively been destroyed, Xinhua said.
But skies were clearer across most of the country on Wednesday, a three-day rain and snow “severe alert” was lifted for the worst affected areas and temperatures had risen to well above freezing in the south.
“As most of China is predicted to have clear weather for the Lunar New Year holiday, the country may get a breathing space to recover from the disaster,” Xinhua said.
President Hu Jintao visited the autonomous region of Guangxi in the south where state television showed him helping soldiers load food and other aid on to a helicopter.
“If we are united as one, working in strength, we can overcome the current difficulties and ensure victory all round,” he said, urging the soldiers to pay attention to safety.
Whole cities had had their power and water cut off for more than a week and 11 electricians have been killed trying to reconnect lines or break ice encasing poles and cables. Livestock and crops have been destroyed.
The remote township of Wengxiang in the snowy mountains of Guizhou province hadn’t had electricity since January 14. Residents also have to negotiate steep, icy paths to fetch water in buckets because pipes are frozen or cracked.
“At night, it’s like a blanket of darkness,” said resident Pan Zhengkai, adding that families ate their dinner at 4 p.m. before darkness set in.
“I guess we’ll have to have the new year celebrations in darkness.” he said. “We can’t afford candles.”
Across the country, 170 of more than 2,000 counties had suffered outages. By Wednesday, 169 counties had had their power restored, or partially restored.
Premier Wen Jiabao was in Guizhou on Wednesday on his third visit to disaster areas in nine days.
“Only when the masses are reassured can the country be at peace,” Xinhua quoted him as saying. “Only when the country is at peace, can the leaders be relieved.”
Rising prices of coal, vegetables, pork, rice and other staples have added to the holiday misery, but the sea of travelers waiting for trains, especially in Guangzhou in the south, had cleared.
Many mostly poor, migrant workers had already given up trying to get a ticket home and opted to stay put. “Millions of Chinese had to say ‘sorry’ to their loved ones,” Xinhua said.
Firecrackers, which will explode through the night across China and for much of the next 10 days, had already started.
“The biggest problem has been keeping the children warm at night,” said farmer Ye Xiaoling in the farming and manganese mining area of Wanshan in the Guizhou prefecture of Tongren, which has also been without power since January.
“Our problem is that our homes and everything else are not used to such cold.”
She also said the children had complained they would not be able to watch the traditional state TV entertainment special, often described as the most watched on Earth, which many will have to listen to by radio.
With safety in mind, the Beijing city government sent out an SMS wishing residents a happy Spring Festival, a period when firework accidents kill some and injure many across the country.
“Please set off fireworks in a legal, civilized and safe manner,” it said.
Additional reporting by Jason Subler and Li Jiansheng in Beijing and John Ruwitch in Hong Kong; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Bill Tarrant