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India floods kill at least 1,000; death toll expected to rise

By Basharat Peer

New York Times

LAST UPDATED: 9:06 a.m. HST, Jun 22, 2013

NEW DELHI » Flash floods and landslides in northern India have killed at least 1,000 people in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in the past week, an official said today, and with thousands missing or stranded the toll is expected to rise.

The official, Vijay Bahuguna, the chief minister of Uttarakhand, confirmed the latest toll in a meeting with reporters today. Describing the floods as a “national crisis,” Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde told the Indian news media today that 40,000 people were still stranded.

Most of the stranded were people on a four-stop pilgrimage known as Char Dham Yatra, which takes Hindu pilgrims to four of the holiest shrines in Uttarakhand between May and November.

To aid the rescue efforts in the narrow mountainous valleys at altitudes as high as 11,000 feet above sea level, members of the Indian military have been pressed into service. The water levels today of the flooded rivers and streams that run through the state had receded, but the floods have destroyed roads, bridges, electrical poles and communication networks.

More than 40 helicopters were being used to rescue pilgrims from remote mountainous areas, according to Indian officials, but the difficult terrain has hampered the rescue operations. A rescue helicopter crashed Friday while trying to evacuate trapped pilgrims in a village near Kedarnath. The pilot was injured, police officials told the Press Trust of India, the official news agency of India, and is being treated in a local hospital.

Families throughout India are frantically trying to locate their missing relatives.

“Four of my friends, who are priests, are missing,” said Naresh Kukreti, a 34-year-old priest at the Kedarnath temple, one of the holiest shrines of Hinduism, in Uttarakhand. “We don’t know whether they are alive or dead.”

Kukreti said today that after the ritual evening prayer last Sunday he was filled with unease. “It had been raining for two days and fewer pilgrims were visiting the temple,” he said. “I had a strange feeling something terrible was about to happen.”

Kukreti, who has been working as a priest at the eighth-century Kedarnath temple built high up in the Himalayas at 11,759 feet above sea level, retired to his modest quarters after the prayers. “Suddenly a deafening noise shook everything,” he said. “It felt like an earthquake.” Kukreti and about 800 pilgrims sought refuge in the rock temple dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.

“Within minutes, a river of black water and big stones followed us into the temple,” Kukreti said, speaking by phone after returning to his home village, Tailagram, in the Rudraprayag district of Uttarakhand. The ancient rock temple survived the assault, but when the water receded after a cold night of prayer, Kukreti found himself standing among piles of dead pilgrims. “Everywhere I looked I saw dead men, women, and children,” he said.

Most of the buildings around the Kedarnath temple were destroyed and the town of Kedarnath that has grown around the temple was submerged. After braving cold, hunger, and grief for three days inside the Kedarnath temple, Kukreti and about 400 pilgrims trekked a few miles to reach an emergency landing pad, where rescue helicopters airlifted them to a relief camp.

Google has developed a Person Finder application for the Uttarakhand area, and the Uttarakhand government has created a message board on its official website, where relatives of missing pilgrims are posting their phone numbers and names, last locations, and pictures of their missing relatives. In a message on the Uttarakhand government bulletin board, Rajneesh, an anxious relative, who uses only one name, said he was looking for his missing brother, sister-in-law and their two children named “Honey” and “Money.” He wrote, in part, “please sir help me for find out help me.”

The fragile ecosystems of the Himalayan pilgrimage centers have been straining to cope with the disaster. In the past two decades, religiosity has increased in India, along with economic growth. The numbers of pilgrims visiting religious sites has greatly increased. According to official statistics, the number of tourists visiting Uttarakhand increased to 30 million in 2010 from 10 million in 2001.

“It is an ecologically fragile region and the Himalayas are young mountains, but there is haphazard construction to serve increasing numbers of tourists and pilgrims,” said Ashish Kothari, an Indian environmentalist and co-author of “Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India.” “All sorts of hydroelectric projects are coming up in these areas and anything goes in the name of environment assessment.”

The rescuers are racing against time as the Indian Meteorological Department has predicted an increase in rainfall in northern India from Monday.

Around 73,000 pilgrims have been evacuated so far, according to Indian officials. In an interview with a television network, Bahuguna, the chief minister of Uttarakhand, said that it might take about two weeks to evacuate all stranded pilgrims and locate the missing.

Kukreti, the priest, said that many people “were so scared” that they “ran into forests to save themselves.”

“I worry how any helicopters can reach those who are in narrow valleys or jungles,” he said. “They might die of hunger before the government reaches them.”

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