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Blackout nears 2 weeks in China's Chenzhou city

A woman prays at a village in Pingshi in an area of southern China that has been hit hard by snow and ice. Workers are struggling to restore power.
A woman prays at a village in Pingshi in an area of southern China that has been hit hard by snow and ice. Workers are struggling to restore power.
Kin Cheung, Associated Press

BEIJING — Driven from her home by the bitter cold, Shi Ying was lucky to find a room at a hotel with a generator. But other residents of the central city of Chenzhou will ring in the Chinese New Year by candlelight.

A blackout stretched into its 12th day Tuesday in Chenzhou, a Hunan province city in a region that has been pummeled by blizzards and ice storms since Jan. 10.

"It doesn't feel like the New Year at all," Shi said. "It should be happy but instead it's scary."

The 28-year-old Shi and her family have been at the hotel since the crisis began. She said there is no TV or radio, and residents have no information about when utilities might be restored.

Chief Engineer Gu Junyuan of the State Electricity Regulatory Commission said electricity was restored to parts of Chenzhou on Monday evening, but the power failed again after just three hours.

"Since time is running out, our task is still an arduous one," Gu told reporters in Beijing. He said workers would be hard-pressed to restore power by Thursday, the Chinese New Year.

It is the biggest holiday of the year for Chinese, like Christmas in the West. The weeklong holiday starts on New Year's Eve when families gather for a feast, watch the China Central Television New Year's gala broadcast, then set off rounds of firecrackers at midnight.

The scene in Chenzhou was anything but festive on Tuesday.

Cold, exhausted residents stood in long lines for water and gasoline. One woman did laundry on the sidewalk using a plastic basin and water from a fire hydrant, the sleeves of her bulky coat rolled up to the elbows. Others washed vegetables in front of shuttered storefronts.

"It is extremely cold and inconvenient. I haven't had a shower for about 10 days," said a Chenzhou travel agent who gave only her surname, Hong.

Prices of food, candles and charcoal briquettes used for heating and cooking have shot up — quadrupling in some cases — due to shortages, residents said.

Temperatures in Chenzhou hovered around 34 degrees, and were expected to dip below freezing Thursday.

Hunan and neighboring Hubei province have registered some of the coldest temperatures on record in the past month. On Monday, the government meteorological bureau said the provinces had recorded the longest run of days with an average temperature of freezing or below in a century.

Severe winter weather began pounding central and southern China last month, and the normally temperate regions were woefully unprepared for ice and snow. Supplies of coal, which China uses to generate 70 percent of its electricity, dwindled amid transport bottlenecks.

The loss of power brought trains to a standstill, stranding more than 5 million holiday travelers. Official estimates have put losses to agriculture and the economy at $7.5 billion.

China's leaders have made repeated trips to affected regions, reassuring residents and stranded travelers that the government was doing its best.

The government has mobilized hundreds of thousands of army troops and militia members. In one scene shown on state TV, dozens of troops slowly removed thick ice from a stretch of highway by hacking at it with pickaxes.

Accompanying the effort was a fulsome propaganda campaign emphasizing unity, overcoming hardship and pride in the motherland.

"The great Chinese people will never be vanquished by any disaster," President and Communist Party leader Hu Jintao said at a Chinese New Year celebration in Beijing.

Despite the slow pace of repairs in Chenzhou, a transit hub with an urban population of more than 1 million and another 3 million in the surrounding countryside, the situation appeared to be improving elsewhere.

Highways were being cleared of ice and train service was restored, allowing tens of millions of migrant workers to complete holiday journeys home.

Power had been restored to 27 of the 50 cities and counties affected, the electricity commission said. Nationwide, power was flowing again along 130 of 170 transmission cables affected.

The official Xinhua News Agency said 11 electricians had died while working to restore power. It wasn't clear if they were included in the official death toll of 60 people killed in accidents and building collapses blamed on the storms.