(Updates throughout with details on recovery efforts in Zhengzhou)
By Emily Chow
ZHENGZHOU, China, July 22 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people were being evacuated from flood-hit regions of central China on Thursday as officials raised the death toll from heavy rains that have deluged Henan province for almost a week to 33 people.
More cities were inundated and crops destroyed as the severe weather spread northwards, with the official Xinhua news agency reporting direct economic losses of 1.22 billion yuan ($189 million) so far.
The provincial weather bureau on Thursday raised the storm alert for four cities in the north of Henan - Xinxiang, Anyang, Hebi and Jiaozuo - to red, the highest tier of a four-step colour-coded weather warning system.
The fatalities included 12 people who were killed when the subway in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou, about 650 km (400 miles) southwest of Beijing, was flooded earlier this week. Eight people are listed as missing across the province. In Zhengzhou, where the bad weather reached a peak on Tuesday, the skies had cleared but floodwaters were still at waist height, or higher, with entire streets underwater in many areas.
Rescue teams used rubber rafts to ferry residents to safety, while others waded through the waters carrying belongings above their heads, or waited on partially submerged cars to be picked up.
One family transported their young children in a blow-up swimming pool, while another group of people was carried through the floodwaters on a digger truck.
Some 617.1 mm (24.3 inches) of rain fell in Zhengzhou from Saturday to Tuesday, almost the equivalent of the city's annual average of 640.8 mm (25.2 inches), inundating the subway and trapping people at work as others took cover at makeshift shelters at museums, libraries and cinemas.
As the storm moved north on Thursday, more than 73,000 people were being evacuated from the city of Anyang, on Henan's border with Hebei province. The city had been swamped by more than 600 mm of rainfall since Monday, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Two people were killed in Hebei province when a tornado struck the city of Baoding on Wednesday.
Xinxiang, a small city north of Zhengzhou, recorded 812 mm of rainfall between Tuesday and Thursday, shattering local meteorological records, Xinhua reported. Seven medium-sized reservoirs in the city had overflowed, affecting scores of nearby villages and towns.
As of late Wednesday, more than 470,000 people and over 55,000 hectares of crops have been affected by the Xinxiang downpours, Xinhua said, adding the local government had deployed a more than 76,000-strong search and rescue team.
EMERGENCY RESPONSE SCRUTINY The fatal flooding of the Zhengzhou subway prompted the government to order local authorities to immediately improve urban transit flood controls and emergency responses. "They must take emergency measures such as suspending trains, evacuating passengers, and closing stations in atypical situations such as excessively intense storms," the Ministry of Transport said in a statement.
Public scrutiny has also fallen on the timeliness of weather bulletins provided by local meteorological services.
The provincial weather bureau told state media it had issued a report warning of the coming torrential rains two days in advance.
Since Monday evening, meteorological departments from the provincial down to the county level have sent out 120 million text messages to mobile phone users warning them of the storms, the Henan weather bureau said. ($1 = 6.4639 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Reporting by Emily Chow in Zhengzhou; Additional reporting by Ryan Woo in Beijing; editing by Jane Wardell)
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