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State audit, police probe launched into deadly Cheongju floodingBy Shin Ji-hye, Son Ji-hyoung
Published : July 17, 2023 - 14:24
The Yoon Suk Yeol administration on Monday launched an audit looking into all available administrative records to determine which government entity should be held responsible for failing to take adequate safety measures against flooding in South Korea, namely the deadly submerging of a tunnel in North Chungcheong Province.
The Office for Government Policy Coordination announced Monday it had learned about emergency calls to police calling for swift evacuation and closure of the underpass hours before the incident. These calls, however, resulted in no specific actions by authorities.
This came two days after floodwaters inundated an underpass tunnel in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, and hours after President Yoon returned to Korea, ending his state visit to the European countries of Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. The death toll related to the underpass tunnel flooding rose to 13 as of Monday evening.
Police also launched a probe Monday into the incident, as drainage work of the flooded underpass continued.
According to the Chungbuk Provincial Police Agency, a special inspection team comprised of 88 officers will be set up to look into why authorities failed to close off the road, despite the imminent threat of flooding from the nearby Miho River. The police will join forces with the National Forensic Service and fire authorities for an onsite inspection.
Local government entities, as well as the Geum River Flood Control Office, which oversees the bodies of water around the Geum River and its tributaries including the Miho River, could come under police scrutiny over their reporting mechanism and failure to take swift action. Police will also look into whether sufficient measures, such as riverbank collapse prevention or road control, were in place.
Authorities at the scene said the collapse of a construction site's embankment by the Miho River caused the 430-meter-long underpass to be submerged within three minutes at around 8:40 a.m. Saturday. The speed at which it happened was too quick for them to issue a warning in time, they said.
Their briefings also revealed that the drainage system for the underpass that was supposed to be capable of real-time flood detection did not work, as the system outside the underpass also suffered an outage due to the flooding.
Criticism has mounted over the local government authorities' failure to close roads, especially as the Geum River Flood Control Office had issued a flood warning for areas around the Geum River to authorities at 4:10 a.m., more than four hours before the incident.
Last year, a team of about 70 police officers carried out an investigation over a submerged underground parking lot in Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province, after Typhoon Hinnamnor hit. Seven people died in the underground lot, which was flooded in eight minutes. Police found 13 people, including the apartment building manager, responsible for the incident. The case is being reviewed by prosecutors.
The developments were followed by President Yoon's call for the full deployment of policy tools, even considering the "declaration of a special disaster zone."
Yoon, fresh from a trip to Europe, presided over the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters meeting Monday morning to address the damage caused by the heavy rain. He expressed his condolences to those who lost family members in the disaster and emphasized the importance of support for affected families.
Days of downpour have caused extensive damage across the country. The number of people killed due to heavy rain increased to 40 as of 11 a.m. Monday, and nearly 1,000 public and private facilities have been damaged.
Highlighting the ongoing threat of heavy rain, Yoon noted that the prevention and minimization of casualties "should be the top priority.” He urged officials in charge to inspect sites and address issues preemptively.
Yoon instructed the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs to lead in monitoring the damage to farms and collating statistics. From July 10 to Sunday, monsoon rains resulted in damage across 19,927 hectares of farmland and the loss of 561,000 livestock, according to the ministry.
The president later visited Yecheon-gun, North Gyeongsang Province, which was hit by landslides due to the torrential rain, to assess the flood damage. There were 19 fatalities reported in the province as of Monday, with an estimated 1,500 residents displaced. Yecheon in particular was hit hard, with seven found dead in the area alone, and an additional nine reported missing.
Yoon also visited Yechon's Beolbang-ri Elderly Welfare Center, a temporary housing facility for those affected by the landslides, to offer words of comfort.
Addressing an elderly woman who said she "doesn't know what to do," Yoon responded, "Please wait. The government will handle everything."
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