DEHRADUN, INDIA – Bad weather hampered rescue operations Sunday in rain-ravaged northern India, where up to 1,000 people are feared to have died in landslides and flash floods that have left pilgrims and tourists stranded in remote mountains without food or water.
So far 557 bodies have been found after torrential rains struck the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand on June 15, flooding the Ganges River and devastating an area known as the “Land of the Gods” for its revered Hindu shrines.
More than 20,000 people have been cut off in remote areas, with the full extent of the loss of life only likely to emerge after flood waters recede and rescue workers reach isolated areas, officials said.
“The death toll could be more than 750 — maybe around 1,000,” Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna said in the state capital, Dehradun, late Saturday.
Raging rivers have swept away houses, buildings and entire villages. Dozens of helicopters and thousands of soldiers have been deployed across the state to help people trapped.
But air operations had to be suspended Sunday due to rain and overcast conditions over the pilgrimage sites of Kedarnath and Badrinath as well as Rishikesh, which is popular with adventure tourists for its white-river rafting.
“Helicopters, pilots, food packages — everything is ready, but we can’t fly because of bad weather,” R.C. Pathak, an Indian Air Force official, told reporters Sunday. “We may get a window of opportunity for an hour or two to fly. We will try to save as many people as possible,” he added.
The Times of India newspaper said some people died of hunger and illness after relief failed to reach them in time.
“Mostly the young survived. But many had to see their loved ones die a slow death in front of their eyes,” it quoted a rescue worker as saying.
For the 22,000 stranded people, it has been a grim battle of survival against the odds, an army rescue worker said.
“They have been stuck for more than five days without food or water. Temperatures have been dipping sharply in the night but they do not have any shelter,” he said.
Rescuers hoped to evacuate more people on Sunday after road links to several areas were reopened.
Floods and landslides from monsoon rains have also struck neighboring Nepal, leaving at least 39 people dead, according to a government spokesperson in Katmandu.
The annaul monsoon, which covers the subcontinent from June to September, usually brings some flooding.
But the heavy rains arrived early this year, catching many by surprise and exposing a lack of preparedness.