Bad weather hampers Uttarakhand rescue ops; mass cremations begin (Roundup)

Dehradun/New Delhi, June 26 (IANS) Fresh rains and dense fog Wednesday hampered rescue operations in flood-hit Uttarakhand, where around 7,500 people are still stranded, as the authorities said they were taking all precautions to prevent the outbreak of an epidemic with hundreds of bodies reported to be buried under the debris.

The process of cremating the bodies began Wednesday with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) conducting a mass cremation of around 300 bodies at Kedarnath.

The bodies of 17 of the 20 people killed in the Indian Air Force chopper crash Tuesday were recovered. The IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne, visited Gauchar, where the IAF has set up its rescue base. He expressed grief over the death of the personnel belonging to the IAF, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) in the crash.

“We are proud to be here and proud to be doing the jobÂ… we need to hang on there. The period will last for another 8-10 days,” Browne said in encouragement to the rescue teams.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has condoled the deaths. “Your men have done heroic work in treacherous circumstances and saved thousands of lives,” he told Browne.

Bad weather held up rescue operations at many places. While the skies opened up in some places, dense fog remained a cause of concern in most places, holding up helicopter services.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna said that the people stranded in Harsil would be rescued by Thursday and those in Badrinath would be evacuated in “one or two days” if the weather is conducive for air operations.

Bahuguna said state and central teams are testing the waters and studying other factors to ensure there is no outbreak of an epidemic.

“There is a fear that an epidemic may break out. Secretary health (of the state) and central teams are surveying the areas and are carrying medicines,” Bahuguna said.

The ITBP said its men based in Gaurigaon were conducting a search on foot in the hills of Uttarakhand to recover the bodies of those killed.

The NDMA said it had performed the mass cremation of around 300 bodies Wednesday. NDMA vice chairperson N. Shashidhar Reddy said the mass cremations would be performed in batches and the process would be completed by Friday.

“Our rescue operations will hopefully be completed by tomorrow. There is about 8-10 feet of debris in and around Kedarnath. We need to clear it. Several bodies may be trapped underneath it; the death toll may reach 1,000,” Reddy told reporters in New Delhi.

Survivors said they were thankful to be alive.

Vimla Devi from Patna, who was rescued from Kedarnath, said she can never forget the horror that unfolded after the floodwater receded from the temple. “There were dead bodies lying everywhere.. It was terrible.”

A local in Guptkashi said all their homes had been washed away. “We were without food for three-four days, we drank water from the well and sometimes even rain water.”

Helicopter services were continuing in Dharasu area of Uttarkashi. But with the inclement weather continuing to affect the rescue, the army was now focusing more on evacuation on foot.

Rescuers were urging people to walk to army base camps with the help of troopers guiding them.

The hundreds who had reached relief and medical camps set up by the army were waiting for the weather to clear so that chopper sorties could begin and they can be airlifted to Dehradun, Haridwar and Rishikesh.

More than 845 people have been confirmed dead in the natural calamity that hit Uttarakhand June 15.

Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari and Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar have appealed to MPs to contribute to the rehabilitation effort from theor MPLADS funds and to donate one month’s salary.

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