Rescue and relief operations were intensified on a massive scale today in flood-ravaged Uttarakhand as multiple agencies evacuated the worst-affected Kedarnath town and other areas even as the death toll is feared to be in several hundreds.
50,000 people were still said to be stranded in various parts of the state that was hit by cloudburst and floods in the upper reaches that left several hundreds of homes, rest houses and buildings in ruins and thousands of people missing.
The official death toll still stood at 150 but Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna said the casualties could run into several hundreds which will be known only when areas become accessible and water recedes.
The state government's disaster mitigation and management centre had in the morning said that the causalities could run into thousands with about 90 dharamshalas (resthouses for pilgrims) swept away in the flash floods.
In the wake of poor connectivity and communication, relatives of several pilgrims who came from outside the state were struggling to find the whereabouts of their dear ones.
The upper reaches of the state lay mute witness to the death and devastation caused by nature's fury due to Saturday's cloudburst and landslides and a complete estimate of which was still not available.
Uttarakhand Principal Secretary (Home) Om Prakash told reporters here that 1,000 people have been evacuated from different places. There are still around 200 people in and around Kedarnath valley and tomorrow their evacuation will be done.
ITBP chief Ajay Chadha, whose 1,000 men are involved in relief work in Uttarakhand, told reporters in Delhi that the worst affected Kedarnath temple area has been evacuated of people and there could still be about 400-500 people in the upper reaches.
He said Army will launch operations tomorrow to bring these people down. The Rambada area around the famous Kedarnath temple was still in slush and debris and there could bodies submerged in it, he said.
Chadha also said they were not in a position to give the complete death toll in the disaster unless bodies are recovered. There could be a lot of people who could have been washed away but in such situations eyewitness accounts could sometimes be exaggerated, Chadha said.
22 helicopters have been deployed to rescue and evacuate over 22,000 stranded people to safer locations through hundreds of sorties. Food, medicines and other essentials were also carried to the needy by the defence forces.
The ITBP DG, who is also in-charge of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), said 17 bodies were recovered by the troops of the specialised force from the Kedarnath area. The state government has been informed.
Gaurikund, the base camp for those going to Kedarnath temple, also witnessed rescue of 250 people today by small helicopters.
ITBP chief Chadha said a number of tracks are being opened up and he hoped that the Joshimath axis would be open for access by foot by tomorrow.
He also said the Badrinath area is "not as critical" as other areas and the situation was more or less similar in Yamunotri and Gangotri.
The DG said a number of people who were rescued were "traumatised" by the nature's fury as he said that fear of disease outbreak could not be ruled out.
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna termed the calamity as unprecedented adding that the casualties caused by the tragedy would run into several hundreds.
"The tragedy is huge and damage tremendous with vast tracts of land still submerged under tonnes of debris. The causalities must run into several hundreds," Bahuguna told reporters at the secretariat here.
Principal Secretary Rakesh Sharma said 11,000 people stranded in Gangotri and Yamunotri routes in Uttarkashi district were evacuated through air and road routes.
"Our focus right now is to vacate Kedarnath valley completely where 250 people are still stranded. Once we are through with this process we will move on to Badrinath where 9,000 people are stuck," Sharma said.
When asked exactly how many people had been killed in the calamity, Sharma said it was difficult to arrive at a number but the figures can be "shockingly huge".
Apart from the people rescued from Gangotri and Yamunotri, six foreign tourists have been evacuated from Harshil in Uttarkashi district and seven more from Milam and Burfu in Pithoragarh district.
Sharma said about 1,500 yatris are stuck in Harshil who are being evacuated from helicopters. 516 people were also evacuated to Joshimath from Ghangharia, Pandukeshwar, Badrinath, Govindghat and Dudhar, he said.
The official said efforts are on to make temporary helipads in the affected areas so that big MI-17 helicopters could be landed there to speed up the evacuation process.