The monsoon tragedy in Uttarakhand, India could worsen with the death toll expected to reach 5,000.
Rescue workers in northern India are scrambling to save tens of thousands of people stranded by devastating floods that have killed an estimated 1,000 in the region.
Raging rivers swept away houses, buildings, roads, bridges and entire villages. Dozens of helicopters and thousands of soldiers have been deployed to help people stranded across the state.
Kedarnath Valley, the temple town in the state of Uttarakhand, which was the epicenter of cloudbursts, flash floods and landslides was cleared Sunday of all stranded pilgrims, according to reports.
Rescuers battled rains to evacuate more than 3,000 more people in the disaster.
On his return from an aerial survey of the affected areas, Disaster Management Minister Yashpal Arya told reporters at the Jollygrant airport:
“At least 5,000 people must have been killed in the deluge that inflicted heavy damage on vast tracts of land especially in Kedarnath Valley.”
Arya did not give an exact figure saying extrication of bodies from under debris in affected areas is yet to be taken up.
With the emphasis to rescue the stranded, little has been done to recover bodies buried under debris and mud. Officials fear that the number of dead may grow substantially.
“It is hard to come up with a definite death count till the forces can look through the debris and the slush,” said a police officer.
The official death toll till yesterday was put at 680 while Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna said the death toll is likely to be around 1,000.
"Very heavy casualties are feared and I cannot give the exact number without a proper survey," Bahuguna said.
He described the severe flooding as a "Himalayan tsunami."
With the adverse weather conditions predicted by the weather department for tomorrow, the multi-agency operations raced against time to rescue an estimated 19,000 stranded in three areas including Badrinath.
Rescue efforts, especially helicopter sorties, had to be suspended yesterday due to rain and overcast conditions in Kedarnath and Badrinath as well as Rishikesh — places famous for temples and popular with adventure tourists for its whitewater rafting.
The Indo Tibetan Border Force (ITBP) began constructing foot tracks to speed up evacuation work. Air operations are being directed to inaccessible areas like Gaurikund and Harshil and other places that were not targeted earlier.
Lt. Gen. Anil Chait, Commander-in-Chief of the Central Command, which is heading the rescue operation, said this is "by far the worst tragedy" he has come across in his career.
According to Chait, about 8,500 soldiers of the mountain division and medical core were deployed in the rescue and evacuation efforts.
Those who survived the monsoon fury told tales of havoc and a quest for survival in the aftermath.
“Some were swept away, others died of altitude sickness and cold,” said Bhagiram Budhathoki of Salyan district to the BBC. “We walked through the jungle with nothing to eat for days, surviving on the biscuits dropped from the helicopters.”
*Sources linked to within text.