Racing against time in the face of predicted adverse weather, over 10,000 people were on Saturday evacuated from various upper reaches of flood-ravaged Uttarakhand, including the worst-affected Kedarnath, as the death toll may touch 1,000.
In all, 70,000 stranded people have been brought to safety in the mammoth ongoing multi-agency operations and more than 22,000 remain to be evacuated, according to information given by the Centre and the state government.
While on Sunday the weather may stabilise, those engaged in the operations are worried about the rain forecast for Monday and Tuesday that could hamper their work.
“The death toll is likely to be around 1,000,” Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna told reporters in Dehradun as the Himalayan tragedy unfolded after the gushing waters left behind a trail of death and destruction.
A conclusive figure can be arrived at only after the slush and debris under which bodies could be buried are cleared, he said.
Officials said 123 bodies were recovered from the Kedarnath temple complex raising the official death toll to 680. Army officials said 83 bodies were identified and handed over to authorities.
Mounting the biggest-ever operation to evacuate people from a disaster zone in peace time, 61 helicopters, including 43 of IAF and 11 of the army, were deployed. World’s biggest Russian-made MI-26 helicopters that can carry about 150 passengers were pressed into service on Saturday.
Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari told reporters in Delhi that while the Army and ITBP rescued 4,000 people each, air force chipped in to move the rest.
He said all central and state government agencies were working in full coordination, a point he made hours after Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said there seemed to have been some lack of coordination.
Former Home Secretary V.K. Duggal, who is also a member of the National Disaster Management Authority, has been appointed to coordinate the work of various agencies in rescue and relief operations.
A senior state government official said 123 bodies have been recovered from Kedarnath temple complex where a team of experts went today to a take count of bodies strewn all over the place.
More bodies may come to the surface in the next couple of days as the slush and debris lying in the area is removed, said the official who did not want to be quoted.
About 1000 more pilgrims stranded in Rambara and Junglechatti areas en route to Kedarnath shrine in Rudraprayag district were sighted by security forces.
Tewari said in Junglechatti, a point of concern, there were 400-500 people. In Kedarnath, there were 70 to 80 still there. 100 people were still left in Hemkund Sahib while in Badrinath there were 8,000 people.
At his press conference, the chief minister said Kedarnath has been completely evacuated. Tewari said food packets have been given in Junglechatti and Gauchar, where two helicopters will make sorties tomorrow.
The National Disaster Relief force rescued 143 people from Gaurikund, one of the higher reaches on way to Kedarnath. There are 189 sadhus in Gaurikund who have refused to move out.
In all, 150 sorties were undertaken today. MI-17 V-5 helicopters, the latest acquisition of Air Force, with advanced radars and autopilot were used to penetrate the valley. They also act as guide to other choppers to follow.
Of the 287 communication towers that were dysfunctional, 167 have been restored and the remaining will be functional by tomorrow, the minister said.
Even as the stranded tourists and pilgrims found it difficult to get food and water or unaffordable with prices shooting up, they had to battle another front with a group of youths going on a looting spree.
"All my cash, about Rs 25,000 was snatched by a group of youngsters who had Nepali features," said a shocked pilgrim in Gaurikund.
A woman said all her jewellery was taken by the unscrupulous elements at knife point.
"We have received such complaints and we have stepped up vigil," a senior police officer said.
17 foreign tourists were evacuated from flood-hit Dharasu in Uttarkashi district.
Disaster Management authorities here said that photos of the bodies strewn all over the area will be taken and put on the state government's official website.
Officials said the stranded pilgrims in Rambara and Junglechatti areas seem to have taken refuge in the gorges and ravines in these areas when the massive deluge occurred nearly a week ago.
Hungry for days, many of those sighted are ill and and in need of immediate medical care, they said, adding the sick and ailing among will be evacuated on a priority basis.
Helping out, the Rajasthan government has given two choppers and 30 buses for evacuation of pilgrims.
The Gujarat government has also put into operation two chartered planes 747 Boeings (Jet Airways) with a capacity of 140 persons each to ferry pilgrims from the state stuck in high altitude areas to Ahmedabad.
Chopper operations were hampered here early this morning with overcast conditions delaying the programme of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi of an aerial survey of the affected areas in Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Uttarkashi districts.
A control room for pilgrims from Gujarat has been set up at Shantikunj Haridwar.
In Himachal Pradesh, seven foreigners were today evacuated from tribal Lahaul and Spiti district even as the state chopper made sorties to high altitude areas in Pooh, Tabo and Nako to airlift people stranded in rain-ravaged Kinnaur district for the past eight days.
Most of the link roads and Hindustan-Tibet National Highway was blocked at numerous places due to landslides and breaches and a large number of vehicles are stranded in the district.
The situation was improving in Uttar Pradesh as there was no fresh rainfall. While Sharda and Ghaghra have registered a downward trend, the River Ganga was rising all along its route from Fatehgarh to Ballia.
River Ghaghra, which was still flowing above the danger mark at Elgin Bridge (Barabanki), was receding and at Ayodhya and Turtipar, where it has crossed the red mark, it was static.
The Uttar Pradesh Roadways Corporation has started 300 special buses from Haridwar for the benefit of flood affected people.
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