BEIJING -- Record-high floodwaters rushed through southern China's industrial heart yesterday, putting factories and railway lines in the path of torrents that have killed hundreds and caused $2.5 billion in economic damage over the past two weeks.
Government forecasters warned of more torrential rains in the densely populated south, especially north of Hong Kong around the Pearl River Delta, a hub for China's booming export industries.
The Pearl River was swelling late yesterday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, calling it ''the largest flood peak in the region's history."
Across China, rains and mudslides have killed at least 536 people in the past two weeks, the agency said. In southern China, the storms killed 97 people this week and left another 41 missing.
Flooding in parts of the poor, mountainous region of Guangxi, west of Guangdong on China's southern coast, was the worst in a century, according to state media.
In the hard-hit industrial city of Wuzhou, in Guangxi, houses near the Xijiang river were flooded up to their roofs and city residents moved to upper-story apartments or fled to higher ground.
Instead of cars, traffic consisted of rafts made of upturned beds, cupboards, and doors. People paddled between dangling, bare electricity wires seeking food and other necessities.
State television yesterday showed people clinging to rubber hoses to avoid being swept away, as well as soldiers placing babies in straw baskets to be lowered with ropes and pulleys into wooden rowboats.
Soldiers and civilians formed brigades to fill and carry sandbags to shore up faltering dams and riverbanks, in a country where most labor is still done by hand.
About 1.5 million people have been evacuated from a six-province swath, while total economic losses were estimated at $2.5 billion, state media reported. Especially hard-hit was Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong and is China's most populous region, with more than 100 million people.
Road and railway traffic was cut in some areas, including the main Beijing-Hong Kong railroad line.
Until now, most damage in Guangdong was to farms, with export-oriented factories largely unaffected, said Ruby Zhu, China economist for the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce.
''But if it gets more serious, we're not sure what will happen in Guangdong province," she said.
A newspaper photo in China showed floodwaters in one town that nearly reached the top of telephone poles.
High water levels could spread sewage, polluting drinking water and raising health risks as well as damaging crops, said Alistair Henley, the Beijing representative of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
''There will be a lot of suffering, particularly for the rural people in neighboring counties," Henley said.
Authorities in Macau, the former Portuguese colony west of Hong Kong at the mouth of the Pearl River, issued a flood warning, saying the rain-swollen river could rise to as much as three feet above normal, Xinhua said.
In the eastern province of Fujian, one person was confirmed dead and 22 were missing after a landslide swept a bus off a highway and into a river on Thursday, Xinhua said.
The nationwide death toll of 536 was higher than most of the rainy seasons of the past decade -- though still below that of 1998, when 4,150 people were killed in summer flooding in central and northeastern China.
China suffers hundreds of flood deaths every year during its June-August rains.
Material from Reuters was included in this report.