NEW DELHI — The body count from massive flooding throughout north India reached 131 on Tuesday, and locals fear the death toll could rise dramatically over the next few days.
Hundreds of people are missing and some 70,000 others remain stranded, many of them in areas that can now only be reached by helicopter, according to the Hindustan Times. Hardest hit are the mountainous states of Himachal and Uttarakhand, where some say dams and unplanned developments along the banks of Himalayan rivers exacerbated the floods' devastating effects.
Local reports cited Hindu activists as saying that a pilgrimage route to the Kedarnath shrine in Uttarakhand was littered with bodies, after a torrent Sunday swept away virtually every building in the town apart from the temple itself. An officer taking part in the rescue effort told the Indian Express that the only pilgrims likely to have survived the flood were the people who were inside the temple when the deluge hit.
In the town of Kedarnath alone, more than 500 people remain missing, officials told the Times of India. Many fear that the final tally could be much higher.
“There are around 4,500 porters and people who carry people on their ponies [who work the pilgrimage route], and no one has heard anything from them. The situation is really terrible,” Alok Bhatt, who works in the Uttarakhand region and received reports from the Kedarnath temple priests through a colleague, told GlobalPost.
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Most of the 70,000-odd people stranded by the floods were undertaking the so-called “Little Char Dham” pilgrimage. The trek into the foothills takes Hindus to the four (char) Himalayan sites most revered by the religion—Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri.
According to the Times of India, disaster management authorities said more than 62,000 of the people stranded in the region are religious pilgrims, while another 10,000 are other tourists.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi will make an aerial survey of the damage by helicopter on Wednesday, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI).
Meanwhile, other officials told PTI that the situation is better in Uttarakhand on Wednesday than it was on Tuesday, and steps are being taken to rush food and emergency supplies to the area.
India's home minister told PTI that Indian air force helicopters have been deployed to evacuate people stranded in Gaurikund, another important Hindu pilgrimage site about 9 miles lower down the path to Kedarnath. Meanwhile, a control center for the rescue operation has been set up in Badrinath, a pilgrimage site about 140 miles from the worst-hit area.
The Indo-Tibetan Border Patrol has set up a relief camp for 6,400 people at Joshimath, while the army has rescued some 5,000 people, the home minister said.
In New Delhi, the Yamuna River is expected to reach a record high on Wednesday. Slum colonies along the banks have been evacuated to relief camps and several bridges closed in an effort to limit the damage.
See Jason Overdorf's tweets from the banks of the Yamuna: [View the story "Delhi shifts poor to relief camps as Yamuna reaches record levels" on Storify]