Rescue workers recovered scores of bodies from the Ganges river in northern India on Friday, as the death toll from flash floods and landslides topped 200, with thousands of mainly pilgrims and tourists still stranded.
Helicopters and thousands of soldiers have been deployed to rescue more than 50,000 people from religious sites, almost one week after floods and landslides from torrential monsoon rains struck the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, a government minister said.
More than 200 people have been killed in the disaster after raging rivers swept away houses, buildings and even entire villages, and destroyed bridges and narrow roads leading to pilgrimage towns high in the mountains, the minister said.
But the death toll is likely to rise, as flood waters recede showing the extent of the devastation and rescue workers reach more isolated areas of the state, known as the “Land of the Gods” for its revered Hindu shrines and temples.
“So far, 207 people have lost their lives. But the toll may go up as debris in many areas is yet to be cleared,” said Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde in New Delhi.
Another 17 people have been killed in the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh, a senior government official said. Floods and landslides from monsoon rains have also struck across the border in Nepal, leaving at least 39 people dead, the government there said.
In Uttarakhand, police said they have recovered 40 bodies floating in the Ganges near the pilgrimage town of Hardwar.
“We have recovered some 40 bodies which floated downstream and the process of identification is on,” Hardwar police chief Rajeev Swaroop told AFP by phone.
The military operation, involving some 43 helicopters and more than 10,000 soldiers, was concentrating on reaching those stranded in the holy town of Badrinath after earlier finding widespread devastation in the Kedarnath temple area.
“Village after village has been buried in the debris and people who got in the way of the waters have been washed away,” Uttarakhand disaster relief minister Yashpal Arya told AFP.
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,” said the state’s principal secretary Rakesh Sharma.
“We are trying all possible ways to rescue them. Roads are totally destroyed,” he said.
Some of those stranded in mountain areas are trying to walk to safer ground, with photos showing 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 shows only roofs of the houses visible above the water line.
Relatives of those missing faced an anxious wait in the Uttarakhand capital Dehradun, where military helicopters and other aircraft were landing carrying some of those rescued.
Distraught relatives clutching photographs of missing family members were waiting outside Dehradun airport for news, an AFP photographer on the scene said.
Amit Thakur, 40, said his 11-year-old nephew has 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.
Army field hospitals have also been set up throughout the state, with the elderly seen on canvas beds awaiting medical attention.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh late on Thursday described the situation as “distressing” and announced a 170-million-dollar aid package and an online appeal for funds, asking “all citizens of India to stand with our distressed fellow countrymen” and “donate generously”.