— Indian air force officials are expressing optimism that about 5,000 people still stranded in the flood-hit mountains of northern India will be evacuated over the next few days. More than a week after the disaster struck, the focus is turning to providing relief to thousands of people displaced by the disaster.
Arriving in Uttarakhand state a day after an air force helicopter on a rescue mission crashed, killing 20 people, Indian Air Force chief N.A.K. Browne, said the “the rotors will not stop.”
“Literally, we are over the hump now," Browne said. "I think if we get three to four days of good weather, we should actually wrap it up in that period.”
More than 90,000 people have been rescued in the mountainous state, which was devastated by flash floods ten days ago after being lashed by the heaviest rainfall in 80 years. The massive mission has been led by air force and army personnel.
Tuesday’s helicopter accident highlighted how challenging that operation has been. The helicopter hit a steep hillside and crashed into a river.
An Indian paramilitary soldier looks at the gate of an airport, covered with special announcements and pictures of missing people, in Jollygrant, India, June 26, 2013.
Locals unload wood from a truck to be loaded on to Indian Air force helicopters, in Gauchar, Uttarakhand, India, June 25, 2013.
Civilians get ready to load relief material for flood affected victims on a helicopter in Joshimath, Uttarakhand, India, June 24, 2013.
Commuters travel on a flooded road after a rise in the water levels of the Yamuna River in New Delhi, India, June 20, 2013.
People use a boat to cross a market along the banks of the Yamuna River, in New Delhi, India, June 19, 2013.
Rescuers help escort stranded pilgrims to helicopters to evacuate at Joshimath in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, India, June 19, 2013.
A submerged idol of Hindu Lord Shiva stands in the flooded River Ganges in Rishikesh, in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, June 18, 2013.
A view of the Hindu holy town of Kedarnath from a helicopter after a flood, in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, June 18, 2013.
People gather to watch a bridge submerged in the flooded water of the River Ganges in Rudraprayag, in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, June 18, 2013.
An Indian soldier carries a stranded woman pilgrim to a safer area in Chamoli district, in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, June 18, 2013.
Indian people walk on a road which caved in after incessant rains on Rishikesh-Mana highway near Joshimath district in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, June 17, 2013.
Indian army personnel distribute free food to stranded pilgrims after they were rescued from one of the worst flood affected regions in Govind Ghat, in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, June 18, 2013.
Pilots have had to land their choppers on treacherous mountain terrain where there are no landing strips. Sorties have been carried out despite overcast skies, fog and rain in recent days. Army soldiers have raced to build makeshift tracks and rope bridges over raging rivers into towns and villages where all roads have been washed away.
There is no accurate estimate of the death toll. It has been tentatively placed at 1,000, but officials say it could be much higher. Officials says it is difficult to estimate how many people are still waiting for help.
“Just as we think that we have finished in a certain area, we find many of the people the next day the numbers have increased because villagers are still stuck on the mountains," Browne said, "so they are coming down, but we will take it from day to day.”
The focus is now moving from rescue to providing relief for those who have lost their homes in the disaster.
A number of those caught in the disaster were Hindu devotees visiting four famous Hindu pilgrim sites in the state.
But with villages and small towns suffering widespread devastation, the local population has been badly hit, and is in need of food, clean water and medical help. Aid workers are trying to reach remote settlements, but with communication links heavily damaged, access to many areas poses a problem.
Aid agencies have also warned of the threat of epidemics if those who died in the disaster are not cremated soon. But bad weather has hampered plans to transport priests and firewood for mass cremations to Kedarnath, a pilgrim site where many bodies have been found.