Once bustling streets along the shores of central China's flood-swollen Dongting Lake were a maze of ghostly canals Thursday where houses and shops bore signs of their occupants' hurried departures.
Some 800,000 workers shored up dikes in Hunan province against the near-record levels of the lake and the Xiangjiang River, which flows through the provincial capital, Changsha. Officials feared the water could burst embankments and inundate villages in densely populated farm areas.
No rain fell Thursday and skies were expected to stay clear in the area for at least two days.
Across China, flooding and landslides set off by torrential rains have killed nearly 1,000 people this summer. More than 200 deaths have been reported in Hunan, where local officials were given emergency powers this week to commandeer labor and materials to reinforce flood barriers.
The flooding has been the worst since 1998, when 4,150 people were killed along the Yangtze River in central China and in the northeast. Total figures for property damage across the vast country were not available, but thousands are believed to be homeless.
Near Dongting Lake alone, about 1,000 homes have been evacuated, the Hunan Civil Affairs Bureau said.
In Yueyang city, where the lake links with the Yangtze River, life along the waterfront continued almost as normal. Vendors dished out food, barbers gave sidewalk haircuts and crowds gathered around chess and mahjong players. Fishing boats and ferries continued to arrive at the piers.
But a few yards away, empty houses stood flooded almost as high as their doors. Laundry hanging on lines dangled inches above the water. Toothbrushes and mugs sat on window sills.
"The people left as soon as the waters started rising," said a fisherman from his boat.
In some shuttered shops, floodwater lapped at hastily stacked chairs and tables. Merchandise sat abandoned in warehouses.
Luckier residents with just ankle-deep water in their homes waded about, drying out clothes and furniture in the hot afternoon sun. One man fished from the roof of a shack.
Others in the city of 600,000 moved belongings to drier ground by boat through chest-high waters.
The 1,560-square-mile Dongting Lake — China's second largest — has long been the scene of chronic flooding. It connects to both the giant, flood-prone Yangtze and to rivers that carry water from Hunan's southern mountains, and rises with their flow in the rainy season.
Conditions have grown more dangerous over the centuries as settlers used dikes to reclaim farmland from the lake, shrinking its size and leaving it little room to swell in flood times.
At Chenglingji on the lake's eastern shore, buildings outside the town's levee stood in five feet of dirty green water. People with boats ferried neighbors to dry land. Some living on the ground floor had moved their belongings upstairs.
"Of course it's a bunch of trouble. But what can we do?" said Wang Guoqing, a dock worker.
Makeshift bedrooms and kitchens were set up and rooms converted to pens for chickens and geese. Children played with dolls while men smoked and read newspapers. Some threw fishing lines off balconies and shouted excitedly to neighbors when they caught something.
Wang, who moved his possessions upstairs Monday, said he was optimistic the water would soon recede. "The waters come fast, but they also go down fast," he said.
More than 8,000 soldiers worked with the 800,000 civilians in shoring up dikes in six cities, the Hunan province propaganda office said. Dongting Lake, which is bigger than Luxembourg, is surrounded by 580 miles of dikes.
China Red Cross in Beijing said Thursday it had delivered $545,000 worth of supplies to Hunan since the start of the flood season in June, including medicine, rice, clothes and thousands of tents.
An additional $3.4 million has been provided by the central and provincial government, along with 200,000 pieces of clothing and thousands of tents and blankets, the state news agency Xinhua said.