BEIJING (AP) _ The death toll from heavy snowfall in central China that was creating travel chaos ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday rose to 17 Tuesday as Beijing told local governments to prepare for worsening conditions.
More than 300,000 people hoping to return to their families for the traditional holiday have been delayed in Hubei province in central China, state media said.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs said on its Web site it was monitoring the situation in Hubei and Anhui, the worst-hit provinces, and was ready to launch emergency plans if needed.
The heavy snowfall hit as the Chinese New Year travel surge got under way, straining China's railways and roads as tens of millions of people return home to their families across the country to celebrate the weeklong holiday starting Feb. 6.
The heaviest snowfall in 16 years collapsed houses, made roads impassable and destroyed crops in Hubei, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
The death toll also rose to 17 from 15 after a car collided with a truck on an ice-covered road in Hubei's capital, Wuhan, leaving two dead, Xinhua said.
Half of the province's roads have been closed since Saturday and nearly 9,000 long-distance buses scheduled to leave Wuhan were canceled, it said.
The State Council, China's Cabinet, issued a notice urging local governments to ``pay close attention to the work of preventing damage from bad weather and make efforts to ensure the traffic transportation is efficient and safe.''
The snow affected more than 10 million people in Hubei and Anhui and caused damage and losses to agriculture of 1.8 billion yuan (US$248 million; euro171 million), Xinhua said.
Xinhua quoted the National Meteorological Center as saying the snow could return later in the week, affecting an area roughly the size of continental Europe encompassing the provinces of Sichuan, Hubei, Guizhou, Hunan, Jiangxi and Anhui.
``Governments in these areas should be on high alert,'' Bi Baogui, the center's deputy director, was quoted as saying.
Disaster relief work is under way in Hubei, including evacuations and provisions of clothing and money, Xinhua said.