The army yesterday resumed rescue operations in Uttarakhand after a brief halt due to fresh rains and dense clouds, with Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna saying over 1,000 people may have died in one of the worst disasters to hit the hill state.
Bahuguna, who is overseeing the rescue and relief efforts following the cloudburst and humongous floods, said the death toll could “well cross 1,000”.
“The tragedy is still unfolding and a conclusive figure can only be arrived at after the rescue teams reach the areas devastated by the rains of the last weekend,” he said. He said scores of houses had caved in after the cloudburst near Kedarnath and unprecedented rains while slush in many areas had crushed locals and pilgrims, raising the spectre of a frightening death toll.
On the basis of reports reaching Dehradun from the hills, the Uttarakhand police control room also said the death toll would rise much above 1,000.
Lt Gen Anil Chait, commander-in-chief of the army’s Central Command, which is spearheading the rescue operation, said that the army will rescue every single person stranded even in the remotest hills.
Admitting that this was “by far the worst tragedy” he had come across in his career, he said about 8,500 soldiers of the mountain division and medical core were deployed in the rescue and evacuation efforts.
“We have also been able to shift more than 18,000 people stranded for days in Gangotri, Joshimath, Badrinath, Kedarnath and Pindari glacier,” Gen Chait said.
He said fresh rains and inclement weather were a frightening prospect, and that army helicopters were able to rescue only seven to eight people at a time.
“A six-layered strategy of evacuation has been prepared,” he said. These were: sorties by choppers, mobilisation of resources, evacuation to relief camps, moving people from relief camps to base areas, search operation to locate and rescue the missing, and rebuilding the battered areas and infrastructure.
The most difficult place to reach was Jangal Chatti area, one official said, adding that more than 15,000 people were still to be evacuated in the state.
With most parts of Uttarakhand witnessing overcast skies and the met department forecasting heavy rain in the next 48 hours, the thousands who are still stranded face a frightening challenge.
“If the rains restart, our choppers will not be able to fly and the rescue sorties will have to be stopped,” said a senior official.
Heavy rains are expected between June 25 and 27, and even multi-layered clouds will hamper flying. Rains are forecast in Pithoragarh, Uttarkashi and Chamoli districts, among the worst hit areas.
With more than 1,000 major and minor roads washed away, officials say air rescue is the only way to get trapped people to safety. But some roads are now open.
Besides the army, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) are working against time to make new routes through the hills and rescuing people on foot.