Cars sit in floodwaters following heavy rains, in Zhengzhou in China's central Henan province on July 22, 2021. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

Zhengzhou, China’s most populous central city and home to producers who supply Apple and Nissan, is still flooded almost 24 hours after being hit by torrential rains on Tuesday, a weather event some experts have hyperbolically described as “once in a 1,000 years.”

The storm smashed China’s, and arguably the world’s, record for hourly rainfall observed in a city at 201.9 millimeters, according to the China Meteorological Administration. This is believed to have broken the national and even global record as roughly half a year’s worth of rain fell within about an hour.

The storm is already affecting global supply chains as key plants and partners of Apple and Nissan were said to be revising their production schedules while counting losses. 

Foxconn, which churns out Apple’s iPhones and other gadgets from its sprawling plants in the city, has partially suspended production across its bases there.

The official Zhengzhou Daily cited sources as saying that about a fifth of Foxconn’s employees could not return to work on Wednesday morning as public transport was only slowly resuming. Production lines were also affected by power outages, the reports said.  

Foxconn had been ramping up its production and making new hires in the run-up to this fall’s new product launch by Apple. It employs about more than 300,000 workers in Zhengzhou, now increasingly known among Apple fans and tech observers as the “iPhone city.”

A flooded subway station in ‘iPhone city’ Zhengzhou. Photo: WeChat

Apple CEO Tim Cook also tweeted that the US tech giant would donate to support relief efforts in Zhengzhou. 

Nissan’s plant in the city also paused production after its Chinese partner, the state-owned Dongfeng Auto, reported damage to its properties and equipment caused by the storms. 

Nissan employees reportedly raced against the clock to move thousands of new cars to a secure location just before its car park became flooded. Nissan’s Zhengzhou base has an annual output of 300,000 cars and engines, and is one of the largest auto plants in central China. 

The storm and flooding, equivalent to total rainfall of 1.49 billion square meters according to Chinese media, left more than 200,000 displaced, hundreds missing and more than a dozen casualties.

Those who perished were mostly commuters trapped in a packed subway train in a submerged tunnel. City officials also warned in a “disaster update” on Wednesday morning that these figures may be adjusted upward as water in some low-lying areas was still rising.

Passengers were trapped in flooded trains and subway stations across Zhengzhou during Tuesday’s evening rush hour. Photos: WeChat

The most dramatic scene was seen when about 500 passengers were stuck in a half-inundated subway train with water in the tunnel rising. People climbed onto seats and sent desperate SOS messages on WeChat and Weibo despite weak signals as water continued to seep into the train’s carriages and rise to their chests and necks.

Zhengzhou Subway’s operator did not immediately suspend services amid reports that tunnels and underground stations had been flooded. 

Photos and videos of passengers inside the train amid the quickly rising water flooded social media.

Most of the passengers were reportedly rescued as police and other first-responders risked their lives and broke into train cars. There were conflicting reports of injuries and fatalities. Zhengzhou’s 200-kilometer subway system remained closed on Wednesday. 

The city was still at a standstill as rain continued in downtown districts with the force of a Category-10 storm. President Xi Jinping is said to have been briefed on the latest situation and the leader instructed a military deployment to aid disaster relief efforts.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also mobilized tens of thousands of troops to guard and shore up dams and embankments along the Yellow River near Zhengzhou. 

YouTube video
A CCTV footage screengrab shows rescuers leading passengers out of a flooded subway tunnel.

Some Zhengzhou residents are now reportedly fuming as the storm exposed what some on social media have called the “weak underbelly” of the city’s rapid infrastructure building spree. Zhengzhou’s sewerage and drainage systems have long been overlooked and poorly maintained despite accelerated urbanization and population growth in the past decade. 

In particular, questions are being asked online about the 18 billion yuan (US$2.78 billion) investment announcement made in 2018 by Zhengzhou officials to bring the city’s decrepit drainage and underground flood storage facilities to acceptable, modern standards. 

Chinese state media has so far stressed the unpredictability of such extreme weather events. Reports have cited meteorologists saying that the inland city’s storm and flooding were the result of the “interplay” and “butterfly effect” of twin typhoons, In-fa and Cempaka, in the East and South China Seas, thousands of kilometers away.

Widespread flooding was reported across Zhengzhou, as local authorities say the rainstorms were ‘once in 1,000 years.’ Photo: Xinhua

They have said both typhoons were so powerful they transferred huge amounts of water vapor from the Pacific into inland regions like Zhengzhou. 

The Global Times also claimed that the intensity and average hourly rainfall of the storms that buffeted the German city of Cologne earlier this week that caused widespread flooding was only a third of the amount that has fallen in recent days on Zhengzhou. 

Zhengzhou’s party chief Xu Liyi, meanwhile, reportedly said no other megacities at home or abroad could have responded better to storms of such magnitude.