India Searches for Flood Survivors as Death Toll May Rise

By , and Santosh Kumar | June 21, 2013

Flash floods triggered by torrential rain in northern India may have killed hundreds of people, a government official said, as the armed forces stepped up searches for those stranded in mountainous areas.

Narrow valleys in the foothills of the Himalayas, whose shrines had lured tens of thousands of Sikh and Hindu pilgrims, remained cut off four days after torrents surged through rocky canyons. Helicopters continued to drop supplies to those stranded in Uttarakhand state after roads were swept away.

“The devastation is massive,” Shashidhar Reddy, vice chairman of India’s National Disaster Management Authority, told reporters in New Delhi yesterday, adding that rescue teams were reaching more remote regions and that he expected the death toll to rise from the current figure of about 150 people.

While the monsoon causes destruction across India every year, they have moved over the country with record speed in 2013. Where they’ve been channeled by steep-sided and deforested valleys, the downpours have been especially violent. Homes and mobile-phone towers have been destroyed, vehicles washed away. Television networks have broadcast footage of apartment blocks collapsing into swollen rivers, and village streets full of debris and rock.

As many as 50,422 pilgrims may still be stuck across the region, the government said in a statement late last night. So far, more than 33,000 people have been evacuated.

“Connectivity is the biggest challenge” for rescue teams, Ajay Chadha, director general of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, said in a televised press conference. He said the crews were attempting to reach those stranded at high altitudes.

Shrine Towns
Sonia Gandhi, the president of the ruling Congress party, called on all national and state lawmakers in her party to donate a month’s salary to help those affected by the floods, Ajay Maken, a senior Congress leader, wrote on his Twitter page.

Religious shrines in Uttarakhand, which abuts India’s border with China to the west of Nepal, attract Hindu and Sikh pilgrims each summer, were battered by the rains.

About 1,500 people remain stranded in Gaurikund, a Hindu pilgrimage site, Chadha said. All tourists and villagers have been evacuated from Kedarnath, another town popular with pilgrims that had been submerged, he said.

Uttarakhand, with a population of about 10 million people, has received almost four times the usual rainfall so far this month, causing rivers to burst their banks.

Farm Lifeline
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said June 19 the number of casualties is expected to rise as he announced a 10 billion rupee ($167 million) relief package.

The most critically injured survivors were being prioritized, Air Commodore Rajesh Isser said in a televised press conference from Dehradun, Uttarakhand’s capital, yesterday. He said progress is slow because some helicopters can only accommodate three or four people. The nearby province of Himachal Pradesh also witnessed deaths and destruction.

The nation’s army and air force have deployed more than 8,000 troops, including medical teams and engineers. They are working to clear roads blocked by landslides and construct temporary bridges to help reach survivors.

India’s monsoon, which accounts for about 70 percent of the country’s rainfall, is vital for its agriculture-driven economy. Rains since the monsoon began June 1 have been 58 percent above average, helping to ease water shortages in some regions and promising to boost crop production in the world’s second-most populous country.

In 2007, more than 2,800 people were killed in India by monsoon rains during the June-September wet season. As many as 50 million people were affected by floods that destroyed 1.6 million homes in the four-month monsoon period. The United Nations described the flood as the “worst in living memory.”

Editors: Mark Williams, Indranil Ghosh

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