Srinagar: Nearly 90 people have been killed after heavy rain triggered flash floods in and around Leh, in Jammu and Kashmir, police said on Friday.
The overnight floods, prompted by an intense cloudburst, tore through Leh, the main town in the Buddhist-dominated Ladakh region, causing what state tourism minister Nawang Rigzin Jora described as “unprecedented” devastation.
Television footage showed scenes reminiscent of an earthquake, with collapsed buildings, downed power lines and residents scrabbling knee-deep through mud to try to dig survivors out of the rubble.
The floods hit Leh and surrounding villages during the night when most residents were asleep.
He said the death toll was likely to rise “significantly” with dozens still missing in Leh and rescue workers unable to reach some of the affected districts nearby.
At least 340 people were reported injured.
“The devastation is unprecedented,” Jora said, adding that the military had been called in to help with the relief efforts.
The Indian Army has a large presence in Ladakh, which shares a sensitive border with China.
The force of the flash flood was so strong that it destroyed part of a camp belonging to the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force.
“More than a dozen of our vehicles got washed away,” said CRPF spokesman Prabhakar Tripathi.
The mountainous region is popular with foreign adventure tourists interested in Himalayan trekking and river-running.
August is the peak tourist season in Ladakh, which experiences extreme weather conditions and is largely inaccessible during the harsh winter.
Some 3,500 metres (11,500 feet) above sea level, Leh is surrounded by high-altitude desert where heavy rainfall is uncommon.
The town was effectively cut off Friday, with the flood waters washing away sections of the main highways to the popular backpacker destination of Manali and the Srinagar.
“So far, we have no reports of any tourists among the dead, but some are stranded on the Leh-Manali road. The army has sent rescue teams there,” Jora said.
Indian Air Force spokeswoman Priya Joshi said that Leh airport, which is owned by the military but operates civilian flights, had been swamped and the runway was covered in mud.
“It should be made operational later Friday,” she said, adding that helicopters were flying sorties to assess the extent of the damage, which another air force officer described as “extensive”.
Daily temperature fluctuations in Leh are dramatic. In the summer months, the thermometer can plunge to minus 3 degrees celsius during the night and then rise as high as 30 degrees during the day.
“I would say we are seeing something quite unusual this year,” said Ravi Ramaswamy, the director of a travel agency in Leh.
“We have had intense snow melt because of soaring daytime temperatures and the rivers have been running at alarming levels,” Ramaswamy said.