, DEHRADUN, India, Jun 22 – Relief teams were racing against time to rescue tens of thousands of stranded people in rain-ravaged northern India as the death toll from flash floods and landslides neared 600.
Rescuers have recovered scores of bodies from the swollen Ganges river with nearly 63,000 people, mainly pilgrims and tourists, still stranded or missing after torrential monsoon rains struck the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, officials said.
Raging rivers have swept away houses, buildings and entire villages, and destroyed bridges and narrow roads leading to pilgrimage towns in the mountainous state, which is known as the “Land of the Gods” for its revered Hindu shrines.
“575 bodies have been recovered so far but the toll is likely to go up. As per our records, 62,790 people are still stranded,” Uttarakhand home secretary Om Prakash told AFP Saturday.
A seven-member team of doctors and officials was on its way to the popular Hindu pilgrimage site of Kedarnath “to collect the bodies lying there”, Prakash added.
Dozens of helicopters and thousands of soldiers have been deployed to rescue the trapped people, almost one week after the rains hit.
Further downpours were expected in the state and also in parts of central India in the next few days.
“We are running against time,” Ajay Chaddha, chief of the army unit overseeing rescue operations in the state, was quoted as saying by the Times of India.
The army Saturday rescued nearly 1,000 people stuck in mountains near Kedarnath, the NDTV news network reported.
“This kind of disaster has never happened in Himalayan history,” state Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna said Friday.
He attacked the India Meteorological Department (IMD) for not issuing adequate warning ahead of the heavy rains, which struck earlier than expected, saying the local government was unable to prepare for the deluge and evacuate people on time.
“The IMD warning was not clear enough,” he said, adding that it would take another 15 days to evacuate all the tourists.
Distraught relatives clutching photographs of missing family members have been waiting for days outside Dehradun airport hoping for news of their loved ones.
Amit Thakur, 40, said his 11-year-old nephew had been missing since their family-run hotel collapsed last week.
“I just hope the army will trace our little boy. I have been standing outside the airport for the last three days to get any information about him,” Thakur told AFP.
The military operation, involving some 43 helicopters and more than 10,000 soldiers, was focused on reaching those stranded in the holy town of Badrinath after earlier finding widespread devastation in the Kedarnath temple area.
Home ministry spokesman Kuldeep Singh Dhatwalia told AFP late Friday: “Our soldiers have rescued more than 50,000 people, including around 16,000 people who were evacuated today.”
A private helicopter carrying aid crashed Friday, injuring the pilot, the Press Trust of India news agency reported, in an incident which highlighted the difficulty of reaching rain-deluged areas.
Another 17 people have been killed in the adjacent state of Himachal Pradesh, a senior government official said.
Floods and landslides from monsoon rains have also struck neighbouring Nepal, leaving at least 39 people dead, the Nepalese government said.
Some of those stranded in mountainous areas of Uttarakhand were trying to walk to safer ground.
Pictures showed pilgrims, aided by soldiers, using ropes and makeshift ladders to climb down cliffs and cross rivers.
Soldiers have also reached some of the villages in lower-lying areas by boat, ferrying women clutching babies, children and elderly men to safety. Video footage showed only roofs of houses visible above the water line.
Rescue workers who have managed to reach those stranded are racing to cut down trees and clear vegetation to allow military helicopters to land and evacuate those most in need, a state official said.
“Thousands of tourists are waiting in the dense forests. They had all taken refuge in the jungle after hotels and other buildings collapsed,” the state’s principal secretary Rakesh Sharma said.
“We are trying all possible ways to rescue them. Roads are totally destroyed.”