Gauchar: Around 1,000 people have been killed in flash floods and landslides in northern India, as a top official warned on Monday that rebuilding of the devastated Himalayan region would take years.
The death toll climbed as fresh rains hampered the search for some 10,000 mainly pilgrims and tourists still stranded nine days after flash floods and landslides hit the tourist state of Uttarakhand.
“The official information with us is that about 1,000 people have died,” Yashpal Arya, the disaster relief minister for Uttarakhand, told AFP.
Senior officials warned that the number killed could rise further as flood waters recede and debris is cleared by emergency workers, showing the full extent of the disaster in the mountainous region, known as the “Land of the Gods” for its revered Hindu shrines.
The state’s chief minister, Vijay Bahuguna, said the rescue operation would probably be completed in the next few days, but rebuilding of shattered infrastructure would take some three years.
“We have to rebuild roads, electricity towers and all the basic infrastructure. It will take about 3 years to restore everything,” the minister was quoted by the Press Trust of India saying.
Raging rivers caused by monsoon rains have swept away houses, buildings and even entire villages in the state, which was packed with travellers in what is a peak tourist season. More than 1,000 bridges have been damaged along with roads, cutting off hard-hit villages and towns.
A doctor recounted a harrowing ordeal of walking with his family for 20 kilometres (12 miles) at night on a road strewn with bodies trapped under rocks from landslides to try to escape the devastation.
J.P. Semwal and his wife and two children trekked from the town of Kedarnath to another town from where they were airlifted to the state capital Dehradun.
“We followed the bodies that littered the route because we knew the bodies were of those who tried to escape earlier to safety,” Semwal, 65, told AFP.
“There were landslides behind us as we walked in pitch darkness and finally reached Guptkashi. We were saved by the grace of God.”
Preparations have been made for a mass cremation in the holy town of Kedarnath and elsewhere, with rescue workers ordered to collect tonnes of fire wood, amid concerns of an outbreak of disease from rotting bodies, officials said.
“The priests of temples have been requested to participate in the final rites,” disaster management official K.N. Pandey told AFP.
Helicopters and thousands of soldiers have been deployed to help with the rescue efforts, with thousands of people already evacuated since the rains hit on 15 June.
Despite bad weather which partially affected the air evacuation operations on Monday, the rescue teams “continued to press ahead with the relief and rescue activities”, an official news release said.
Soldiers along with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) have been using harnesses and erecting rope bridges across flooded rivers as part of efforts to move people to safety.
In some rare good news from the disaster area, an army medical team reached an isolated village in time to help deliver two babies on Sunday, PTI reported.
The team trekked almost 15 kilometres to reach Tijan village before assisting two pregnant women and calling for a helicopter to drop a female doctor into the area to help with the deliveries.
“The newborns and their mothers are in good health,” lieutenant general Vinod Bhatia said.
Fourteen stranded American tourists were evacuated on Monday as part of an air rescue operation in the adjacent state of Himachal Pradesh, where 20 people have been killed, PTI said.
Floods and landslides from monsoon rains have also struck neighbouring Nepal, leaving at least 39 people dead, according to the government there.
The monsoon, which covers the subcontinent from June to September, usually brings flooding. But the heavy rains arrived early this year, catching many by surprise and exposing a lack of preparedness. AFP