A mammoth multi-agency rescue and relief operations were put in place on Thursday in flood-ravaged Uttarakhand evacuating people from the worst-affected Kedarnath town and other areas even as the death toll is feared to be in several hundreds and an equal number missing.
50,000 people were still said to be stranded in various parts of the state that was hit by cloudburst and floods in the upper reaches that left several hundreds of homes, rest houses and buildings in ruins and thousands of people missing.
The official death toll still stood at 150 but Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna said the casualties could run into several hundreds which will be known only when areas become accessible and water recedes.
The state government's disaster mitigation and management centre had in the morning said that the causalities could run into thousands with about 90 dharamshalas (resthouses for pilgrims) swept away in the flash floods.
Stepping up relief and rescue operations, the Defence Ministry has deployed more than 45 Army and IAF choppers along with more than 10,000 troops in the state.
IAF has deployed 20 Mi-17s and 16 Advanced Light Helicopters in the state where they have evacuated over 1,500 people. Army has also deployed over 8,000 of its troops along with over 3,000 personnel of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), Defence Ministry officials said in Delhi.
In the wake of poor connectivity and communication, relatives of several pilgrims who came from outside the state were struggling to find the whereabouts of their dear ones.
The upper reaches of the state lay mute witness to the death and devastation caused by nature's fury due to Saturday's cloudburst and landslides and a complete estimate of which was still not available.
Uttarakhand Principal Secretary (Home) Om Prakash told reporters here that 1,000 people have been evacuated from different places. There are still around 200 people in and around Kedarnath valley and tomorrow their evacuation will be done.
Army has also deployed over 100 Special Forces troops in Kedarnath and Sonprayag area, which is cut-off till now, to link up with people who have been stranded there for last four to five days.
"The Army has so far rescued more than 11,000 people, mainly from Govindghat and Harsil. About 10,000 people are also being provided food and medical assistance," an Army release said.
ITBP chief Ajay Chadha, whose 1,000 men are involved in relief work in Uttarakhand, told reporters in Delhi that the worst affected Kedarnath temple area has been evacuated of people and there could still be about 400-500 people in the upper reaches.
He said Army will launch operations on Friday to bring these people down. The Rambada area around the temple was still in slush and debris and there could bodies submerged in it, he said.
Chadha also said they were not in a position to give the complete death toll in the disaster unless bodies are recovered. There could be a lot of people who could have been washed away but in such situations eyewitness accounts could sometimes be exaggerated, Chadha said.
22 helicopters have been deployed to rescue and evacuate over 22,000 stranded people to safer locations through hundreds of sorties. Food, medicines and other essentials were also carried to the needy by the defence forces.
The ITBP DG, who is also in-charge of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), said 17 bodies were recovered by the troops of the specialised force from the Kedarnath area. The state government has been informed.
Gaurikund, the base camp for those going to Kedarnath temple, also witnessed rescue of 250 people today by small helicopters.
Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna termed the calamity as unprecedented adding that the casualties caused by the tragedy would run into several hundreds.
"The tragedy is huge and damage tremendous with vast tracts of land still submerged under tonnes of debris. The causalities must run into several hundreds," Bahuguna told reporters at the secretariat here.
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