NEW DELHI — Flash floods and landslides in northern India killed at least 1,000 people in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in the past week, an official said Saturday. With thousands missing or stranded, that toll was expected to rise.
The official, Vijay Bahuguna, chief minister of Uttarakhand, confirmed the latest number in a meeting with reporters. Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde told the Indian news media Saturday that 40,000 people were still stranded, and he described the floods as a “national crisis.”
Most of the stranded were people on a pilgrimage known as Char Dham Yatra, which takes Hindus to four of the holiest shrines in Uttarakhand between May and November.
To aid rescue efforts in narrow mountainous valleys at altitudes as high as 11,000 feet above sea level, members of the Indian military have been pressed into service. By Saturday, the rivers and streams that run through the state had receded, but the floods had destroyed roads, bridges, electrical poles and communication networks.
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Meteorological officials said the rains in Uttarakhand were the heaviest in nearly 80 years.
More than 40 helicopters were being used to rescue pilgrims from remote mountainous areas, according to Indian officials, but the terrain hampered the operations. A rescue helicopter crashed Friday while trying to evacuate pilgrims trapped in a village near Kedarnath in Uttarakhand. The pilot was injured and was being treated at a hospital, police officials told the news agency Press Trust of India.
Families throughout India were frantically trying to track down missing relatives.
“Four of my friends, who are priests, are missing,” said Naresh Kukreti, 34, a priest at the Kedarnath temple, one of the holiest shrines of Hinduism. “We don’t know whether they are alive or dead.”
Kukreti said Saturday that after the ritual evening prayer last Sunday, he had been filled with unease. “It had been raining for two days, and fewer pilgrims were visiting the temple,” he said. “I had a strange feeling something terrible was about to happen.”
After prayers, Kukreti retired to his modest quarters. “Suddenly a deafening noise shook everything,” he said. “It felt like an earthquake.”
Kukreti and about 800 pilgrims sought refuge in the stone temple, which was built in the eighth century 11,759 feet above sea level and dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. “Within minutes, a river of black water and big stones followed us into the temple,” he said by phone after returning to his home village, Tailagram, in the Rudraprayag district of Uttarakhand.
The temple survived the assault, but when the water receded, Kukreti found himself standing among piles of dead pilgrims. “Everywhere I looked I saw dead men, women and children,” he said.
Most of the buildings around the temple were destroyed, and the town of Kedarnath, which has grown around the temple, was submerged. After three days inside the temple, Kukreti and about 400 pilgrims hiked a few miles to an emergency landing pad, and rescue helicopters flew them to a relief camp.
Google has developed a Person Finder application for the Uttarakhand area, and the state government has created a message board on its website, where relatives of pilgrims were posting their phone numbers and names, and the last locations and pictures of their missing relatives.
The Himalayan pilgrimage centers have been straining to cope with the disaster. In the past two decades, religious expression has increased in India along with economic growth, and the number of pilgrims visiting religious sites has greatly increased. According to official statistics, 30 million tourists visited Uttarakhand in 2010, up from 10 million in 2001, according to official statistics.
“It is an ecologically fragile region and the Himalayas are young mountains, but there is haphazard construction to serve increasing numbers of tourists and pilgrims,” said Ashish Kothari, an Indian environmentalist and a co-author of “Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India.”
The rescuers are racing against time; the Indian Meteorological Department predicted more rain in northern India starting Monday.
About 73,000 pilgrims had been evacuated, Indian officials said. In an interview with a television network, Bahuguna, the chief minister of Uttarakhand, said it might take about two weeks to evacuate all stranded pilgrims and find the missing.
Kukreti, the priest, said many people “were so scared” that they “ran into forests to save themselves.”
“I worry how any helicopters can reach those who are in narrow valleys or jungles,” he said. “They might die of hunger before the government reaches them.”