LUCKNOW, India – Days after floods killed more than 100 people — possibly many more — rescuers used helicopters and climbed through mountain paths to reach about 4,000 people trapped by landslides in a narrow valley near a Hindu shrine in the northern Himalayas, officials said Thursday.
The helicopters ferried rescue workers and doctors along with equipment, food and medicine to Kedarnath in the state of Uttrakhand, the nearest town to those trapped in the valley, said Air Commodore Rajesh Prasad, who is overseeing the operations.
Amit Chandola, a state spokesman, said authorities so far have been unable to reach eight villages feared washed away by the weekend floods in the worst-hit districts of Rudraprayag and Chamoli.
With the weather improving, army commandos would try to reach the areas on Friday, Chandola said.
He said the official death in Uttrakhand is 105 but added, "We don't know yet what happened to hundreds of people living there." An additional 17 people died in collapsed homes in neighboring Uttar Pradesh state, said R.L. Vishwakarma, a state police officer.
Rakesh Sharma, a state official, said the death toll could be much higher, running into thousands, but the exact number would be known only after a survey of the entire region.
A joint army and air force operation has so far evacuated nearly 14,000 people stranded in the area but nearly 61,000 people remained cut off, officials said.
Chandola said some of the blocked roads were reopened to traffic in the region and nearly 2,000 vehicles moved out of the area carrying stranded tourists.
The flooding washed away roads and nearly two dozen bridges, demolished 365 houses and partially damaged 275 others in Uttrakhand, the state government said. Most of those stranded are Hindu pilgrims who were visiting four revered shrines.
Hundreds of distressed people looking for relatives flocked to Dehradun, the state capital, where flood survivors were taken by plane and helicopter. As those rescued exited the aircraft, those searching for missing people showed them pictures of their loved ones in hopes that someone had seen them.
The lucky ones spoke to their stranded relatives on the phone Wednesday and were waiting for them to be rescued.
State Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna said the Kedarnath temple — one of the holiest Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, located atop the Garhwal Himalayan range — had escaped major damage, but up to 10 feet (4 meters) of debris covered the area around it.
The state received 380 millimeters (14 inches) of rain in the past week, nearly five times the average for that time period, said R.P.N. Singh, India's junior home minister.
Air force spokeswoman Priya Joshi said 30 helicopters and aircraft have dropped food packets and other relief supplies in addition to ferrying stranded tourists. More than 5,000 soldiers helped bring thousands of homeless people to relief camps and provided them with food and medical supplies.
The latest rains have affected several states and the capital, New Delhi, where nearly 2,000 people were evacuated to government-run camps on higher ground. Authorities there said the Yamuna River was expected to start receding Thursday afternoon.
The annual monsoon rains sustain India's agriculture but also cause flooding that routinely claims lives and damages property.