LUCKNOW, India — A day after the government said it would treat more than 5,700 people missing in floods in northern India last month as presumed dead, relatives said Wednesday they still held out hope that their loved ones had survived.
The provisional death toll – officials said some of the missing still could turn up alive – would make the Uttarakhand floods the worst natural disaster in India since more than 10,000 people were killed here in the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.
The toll was worsened by the presence of tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims visiting the state's temples and the many vacationers who head to its cool hills to escape the summer heat. The government said it was presuming those missing for a month were dead so it could start giving compensation to their families.
Anuradha Raizada, left her home in the state of Uttar Pradesh and went to the temple town of Kedarnath with her husband and two sons - Ashwal, 18, and Atharav, 16. She returned home alone.
On June 16, a wall of water struck the hotel where they were staying. Her husband and one of her sons were swept away.
"There was a deafening noise of water and rain. I clung to my younger son, who had injured his leg and could not walk," she said. The next day, when he complained of thirst, she left to fetch him water, but she got lost when she tried to return to him. That was the last she saw of him.
She later stumbled across her husband's dead body, recognizing him from the shirt he had been wearing. She still holds out hope for her children.
She met Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna, who assured her that every corner of Kedar valley would be searched for her two sons, she said.
"I know my sons will return one day. They are safe somewhere in the hills," she said.
Since the flood, Manoj Jaiswal, 40, has not heard from his brother, sister-in-law or their two children, who had been on a pilgrimage in the area. He said the morning just before the flood, his brother called him to say they were staying an extra day.
`'This proved fatal for them," he said.
Jaiswal had gone to the area to search for his relatives. "The hotel where they were staying is badly damaged. Twenty-eight people died in that hotel, but my brother's name is not there in the casualty list," he said.
The state government has been criticized for poor emergency preparedness in a disaster-prone Himalayan area, and chaotic development has been blamed for exacerbating the damage from mudslides and overflowing rivers.
Bahuguna said the government would address those concerns.
`'We will devise a scientific system where a balance could be maintained between development and nature," he said.
More than 1,100 roads were damaged because of the rains and landslides and many of them remained cut off, said R.P. Bhatt, the chief engineer at the Public Works Department. Entire villages were buried in silt and debris.
Ramesh Pokhriyal, a former chief minister of the state and a top official with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party said many villages could not get food supplies and he feared people would begin dying of hunger if immediate action was not taken.
Bahuguna said the government was working on alleviating the suffering.
"Work is under way at a great speed to redevelop and reconstruct the affected areas and to provide relief to those hit by the disaster," he said.
A report sent to Parliament by India's top audit body in April, said the state was badly unprepared for disasters, even though it was vulnerable to earthquakes, landslides and torrential rain.
One state body formed to deal with disasters has never met since it was formed in 2007. Another group, the State Disaster Management Authority, set no rules, regulations or policies since it was formed the same year.
A disaster management plan was still being prepared, there was no early warning system in the state, communication infrastructure was inadequate, emergency service jobs were left unfilled and medical personnel were not trained to deal with disasters, the report said.
`'The state authorities were virtually nonfunctional," it said.
Nevertheless, army troops, paramilitary soldiers and volunteers rescued more than 100,000 people who had been stranded by the disaster.
The air force and private companies made thousands of helicopter sorties to pick up people stuck on rooftops or marooned on hilltops and to drop off food and drinking water.
In a rare feat, a mule stranded in a small island in the middle of the Alaknanda River, was tranquillized and airlifted by a helicopter to safety a month after being swept away in the floods, Captain Bhupinder of Sumit Aviation said. The owners of hundreds of other mules and horses staged a sit-in demanding the rescue of their injured and starving animals.