Dehradun, Jun 25 (IANS) Heavy rains Tuesday hit operations to evacuate thousands of people still stranded in the hills of Uttarakhand as most helicopters could not operate while eight people were killed as an IAF Mi-17 crashed while returning from a rescue mission, officials said.
The state government has put the death toll at 845 and said that it could climb further.
The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) declared Uttarakhand devastation a "severe natural disaster" and requested leaders not to politicise the issue. It also said it would send a team to trace survivors under the debris.
Due to severe rains in Dehradun, many helicopters like the Mi-17 with higher passenger capacity were mostly grounded at the Jolly Grant airport while smaller choppers which tried to fly had to return to their bases at Joshimath and Harshil.
Fog prevented sorties around Devprayag, where a cloudburst in Dubh Mamora village left two people dead and three missing and washed away several houses, while bad weather hit chopper missions at Jangalchatti, Guptkashi, and Gauchar.
Returning from a rescue mission from Guptkashi and Kedarnath, a newly-acquired IAF Mi-17 V5 helicopter crashed north of Gaurikund, killing eight people, including five crew members, an official statement said. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed shock over the accident while commending the armed forces for their "selfless work" in saving lives.
While Indian Air Force (IAF) and army officials maintained that the rescue operations would continue, they admitted that the operations "had taken a brief hit" and added that they were now being "extra cautious and not over zealous".
"All efforts are being done to pull out the trapped people but we will now take weather conditions and warnings more seriously," an army officer told IANS.
With more rain and rising fog across the valley and the hills, operations slowed down, leaving more than 7,500 people still stranded on the Badrinath route.
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna told IANS that while weather had hit the rescue operations, he requested people not to lose hope.
"We will reach every person who is stranded, it is just that weather is hampering the rescue efforts," he added, contending that the number of people to be rescued was well under 5,000.
Officials also added that the mass funeral proposed for the people who died in Kedarnath premises and whose bodies are decomposing there was also aborted due to the rains.
The NDMA also said that around 125 bodies were recovered from the flood-devastated Kedarnath area, while many more could be buried under the debris. Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel, undertaking rescue operations there, said the decomposing human and animal corpses are posing a health hazard.
Personnel of the Armed Forces Medical Services are working in the state with 29 teams deployed around Kedarnath while an emergency centre has been set up at Joshimath, an official release said.
In New Delhi, NDMA vice chairman M.Shashidhar Reddy said MPs from all states could each contribute Rs.50 lakh from their funds for the relief work.
"Despite doing politics over the calamity, all the leaders and MPs should contribute as they can donate Rs.50 lakh from their funds in a national level disaster," he said.
He said the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) would send a team to the state for locating survivors under the debris."We have instruments to detect humans who are alive, by their heartbeat....".
The ITBP raised concerns about decaying corpses. "The corpses are eight to nine days old. They are rotting. It is difficult to operate in that area due to the strong stench," said an ITBP spokesman.
An aid worker meanwhile called the situation in Uttarakhand "a mess" as vast stretches of roads have disappeared and transporting relief to some of the worst-hit areas was near impossible.
"It is a mess right now. It is a complete mess," despaired a spokesperson for ActionAid, which has relief workers in Chamoli, Rudraprayag and Pithoragarh districts.
She told IANS that renewed rains and landslides have made it difficult to reach the areas cut off since the cloudburst and terrible flooding of over 10 days ago.
The spokesperson reiterated that the overall death toll would "definitely be more than 1,000, may be in thousands".