YANCHENG, June 23, 2016 (Xinhua) -- Photo taken on June 23, 2016 shows damaged buildings and vehicles in Funing County, east China's Jiangsu Province. Death toll from extreme weather in east China's Jiangsu Province has climbed to 78, the ministry of civil affairs said. Nearly 500 people were injured, 200 critically. Downpours, hailstorms and a tornado battered parts of Yancheng City at 2:30 p.m., destroying many houses, the city government said in an earlier press release. (Xinhua/Yan Xiao)
NANJING, June 23 (Xinhua) -- At least 78 people died and 500 were injured in one of the deadliest natural disasters to hit east China's Jiangsu Province in decades Thursday.
Downpours, hailstorms and the worst tornado since 1966 battered parts of Yancheng City at 2:30 p.m., destroying homes and trapping hundreds of villagers in the rubble.
More deaths are feared, as search and rescue continued into Friday.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs said 200 people were injured critically.
Extreme weather was reported in several townships in Funing and Sheyang counties in the suburbs of Yancheng.
Gales of 125 km per hour battered several outer townships of Funing County, while in Sheyang, the winds reached 100 km per hour.
Many houses collapsed in the gales. Villages were leveled. Trees and utility poles were uprooted, and motor vehicles were blown away.
A 40,000-square-meter workshop of a joint venture solar energy company also toppled.
Some areas reported blackouts and communication disruptions.
"I tried at least 20 times to call my grandmother at home, and fortunately, she was safe," said Zang Shoucheng, a news reporter in Nanjing, the provincial capital.
"Grandma said she was on her way to the cropland [when the tornado hit], but the gales were so strong she had to lie down on her belly to avoid being swept away," said Zang.
Xie Litian, 62, felt it was like "the end of the world".
"I heard the gales and ran upstairs to shut the windows," said Xie, from Donggou township of Funing County. "I had hardly reached the top of the stairs when I heard a boom and saw the entire wall with the windows on it torn away."
As he ran downstairs, the roof collapsed. "I crouched in a corner of the ground floor for at least 20 minutes, afraid to move."
When the gales subsided and Xie escaped, all the other houses in the neighborhood were gone.
Xie said he saw utility poles uprooted and his tractors were blown away. "I was drowned in my own sorrow, until I heard moans for help from a neighbor buried in the debris of her home."
Xie helped the woman out and took her to a hospital 10 km away on his motorbike. "The road was blocked with rubble and fallen trees. Halfway to the hospital, I met my nephew driving a truck. Together, we put the women into his truck and drove on."
Xie said at least three villagers he knew were dead. "This is the worst day I've ever faced," he said.
As hundreds of people struggled to survive in the ruins, many strangers lent a helping hand.
Citizens in Yancheng put up postings at "Wechat" to offer help ranging from free chauffeur services and free use of cranes to medical assistance.
Xiang Shanfeng, 31, was helping assemble a pump in the worst-hit township of Funing County when Xinhua reporter called him on the phone. "It's urgent to drain the flood water, lest the relocation sites might be drowned. It's ditch dark and everybody needs a torch: the more the better."
Shortly after the disaster, Xiang, a crane driver and native of Funing County, posted his phone number at Wechat and offered to join rescue work with his crane. He helped pull dozens of people out of the rubble over the past seven hours. "The losses were astonishing."
A State Council work group headed by deputy minister of civil affairs Dou Yupei is en route to Yancheng. The ministry has dispatched relief materials, including more than 1,000 tents and 2,000 folding beds, to the affected areas.
Meteorological records showed Jiangsu Province reported 1,070 tornadoes in the 50 years from 1956 to 2005, averaging 21.4 a year. Most of the tornadoes happened in June, July and August.
A similar disaster hit Yancheng City in March 1966.