x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

'Himalayan tsunami' strikes, thousands still stranded in Badrinath and Kedarnath

Troops deployed and helicopters fly sorties to evacuate the stranded as floodwaters inundate India's northern states.

Indian soldiers help travellers and villagers up a steep slope after they were stranded by the rising floodwaters of the River Alaknanda near Govindghat in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand.
Indian soldiers help travellers and villagers up a steep slope after they were stranded by the rising floodwaters of the River Alaknanda near Govindghat in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand.

NEW DELHI // The death toll from heavy flooding in northern states more than doubled yesterday to at least 138 as more than 65,000 people remain stranded.

Uttarakhand has seen the most casualties with at least 110 people killed. At least another 28 people have been killed in the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, officials said.

"It is feared that the loss of life could be much higher," said Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, after flying over the flood-hit regions.

Mr Singh set aside 10 billion rupees (Dh625 million) in emergency aid for Uttarakhand, 1.45 billion of which was to be released immediately.

Relatives of those who died in the floods will receive 200,000 rupees while those injured will receive 50,000 rupees, Mr Singh's office said.

"I would call this natural disaster the Himalayan tsunami," Vijay Bahuguna, the chief minister of Uttarakhand, said yesterday.

Huge rescue operations were underway as 5,000 army troops were deployed in Uttarakhand the flood-hit districts of Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Uttarakashi, while helicopters flew sorties to airlift the stranded.

With the weather clearing, a joint army and air force operation was able to evacuate nearly 12,000 Hindu pilgrims, the Associated Press reported. There are still thousands of pilgrims stranded in the Hindu holy towns of Badrinath and Kedarnath.

Food packets, medicines, tents and blankets have been airdropped into towns and villages still cut off by floodwaters.

"Since the weather cleared today, 12 helicopters have been sent today for rescue operations," Bhaskaranand, an official in Uttarakhand's disaster management department, who uses only one name, told The National yesterday.

Meteorologists yesterday forecast clear skies in Uttarakhand for at least the next 48 hours, easing the challenges of rescue operations.

The incessant rain was a result of the early arrival of a fierce Monsoon, which caught state authorities unprepared.

The floods were caused by a cloudburst on Monday, which delivered 340mm of rain in less than 24 hours. Over the past two days Uttarakhand's rivers Mandakini and Alaknanda, already brimming from four consecutive days of rain and snowmelt from the mountains, have burst embankments, submerging entire houses and small villages, and carving away chunks of mountain roads.

The death toll, which has risen steadily in the past three days, is expected to climb even higher. Sushma Swaraj, a leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, said that "thousands" had lost their lives.

Reports of large groups of missing people have also emerged. At least 20 staff members of the Kedarnath and Badrinath temples have not been found. A group of 5,000 pilgrims and tour guides in the town of Gaurikund could not be contacted.

Govind Lal Parmar, 65, a shop owner from the state of Madhya Pradesh, said by telephone yesterday that his party of six had been cut off in Rudraprayag for the past four days.

The road had caved in when Mr Parmar and his family had been aboard a bus, travelling through Badrinath on their pilgrimage. The bus turned around and made it back to Rudraprayag.

"If the roads open then we will make our way back," he said. "We are safe but all around us, there is chaos, and that makes me afraid of what is to come, weather-wise and security-wise."

In Delhi, the Yamuna river rose above its danger mark, with its water level reaching 207 metres - the highest in 35 years. Nearly 2,000 people in the capital have been evacuated to government-run camps on higher ground.

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

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