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India to Cremate Himalayan Flood Victims as Evacuations Continue

India to Cremate Himalayan Flood Victims as Evacuations Continue
Indian workers offload wood, to be carried to Kedarnath by the Indian Air Force for cremation preparations, at Gauchar Airfield in Uttarakhand state. Photographer: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images

Priests prepared to cremate some of the hundreds of people killed in flash floods in northern India last week as the armed forces bid to evacuate 5,000 pilgrims still trapped in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Weather permitting, mass funerals for victims will be performed today in Kedarnath, the temple town at the epicenter of the deluge that may have left 1,000 dead across the mountainous north of Uttarakhand state, said Laxmi Raj Chauhan, a local magistrate in the province’s Rudraprayag district, by phone.

Authorities are continuing to collect DNA samples and take photographs of those killed to aid identification by victims’ families, Chauhan said.

Rain and low visibility has hampered rescue work in a difficult environment for air crews. An Indian Air Force helicopter crashed yesterday, killing all five crew members and 15 members of various rescue teams. The voice and flight data recorders of the aircraft have been recovered, air force chief N.A.K. Browne told reporters in Uttarakhand.

Browne said four days of clear weather were needed to complete the evacuation. As many as 4,000 people are stranded in Badrinath, another town whose temples each year draw crowds of Hindu pilgrims, he said.

About 10,000 defense and paramilitary personnel and volunteers -- aided by 83 aircraft -- have been deployed to search for survivors and deliver relief. They have evacuated more than 85,000 people from the narrow valleys of the Himalayas.

Narrow Valleys

Unprecedented downpours triggered landslides and floods June 16, washing away vehicles, homes and roads. Television networks broadcast footage of buildings collapsing into raging rivers and village streets filled with debris and rocks. As many as 1,000 people may have died, the NDTV 24x7 television channel has reported citing Vijay Bahuguna, Uttarakhand’s chief minister.

Shrines in the narrow valleys of the Himalayas lure thousands of Hindu and Sikh pilgrims during the summer months. While tourists usually return to the plains before the annual monsoon, this year the rains came early and in unprecedented ferocity, catching many by surprise.

Uttarakhand, which abuts India’s border with China to the west of Nepal and has a population of about 10 million, has received almost four times the usual rainfall this month, causing rivers to burst their banks.

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