Guptkashi/Gauchar: As the mammoth rescue operations in the Uttarakhand disaster neared completion, around 2,500 survivors remained to be evacuated in Badrinath and Hershil on Thursday but concerns grew over the fate of 3,000 people who were reported missing.
Amid fears of epidemic outbreak, the focus shifted to retrieving bodies buried in debris and expediting mass cremation of more victims in Kedarnath town, which bore the brunt of destruction from floods and landslides after heavy rains pounded the hill state nearly a fortnight back.
Hampered by intermittent rains, rescue efforts in multi-agency operations continued throughout the day with over 1,000 stranded pilgrims from Badrinath and 511 from Harshil being evacuated, 12 days after the rain fury, a state official said. Air sorties by choppers were halted for a few times during the day due to bad weather.
A total of 1,04,095 people have been evacuated so far, according to NDMA Vice Chairman M Shashidhar Reddy.
Sixteen more bodies of victims who perished in the disaster in Kedarnath were consigned to flames in the second round today, according to Ravinath Raman, a senior IAS officer who is overseeing the mass cremations. Yesterday, 18 bodies were consigned to flames to kickstart the mass cremation.
Chief Secretary Subhash Kumar said more bodies will be cremated in batches after completion of all formalities like their identification and preservation of their DNA samples.
A second team of doctors, forensic experts and police personnel has left for Kedarnath to complete the formalities, he said.
Around 2,500 stranded people are still waiting to be evacuated but rescue operations in Kedarnath are over, ITBP Director General Ajay Chadha told reporters in Delhi.
With the Army, IAF, ITBP and NDMA finetuning strategies to bring the rescue mission to an end, Lt Gen Anil Chait, General Officer Commanding in Chief (GOC-in-C), Central Command expressed confidence that "Operation Surya Hope" could be wrapped up in the next few days.
Reddy, on his part, hoped that the rescue operation would be completed by tomorrow while Subash Kumar said the rescue operations will have to be stepped up on Friday.
At a news conference in Dehradun, Kumar said about 3,000 pilgrims are still missing. The rescue operations and the mass cremation process have been affected because of bad weather, DIG Sanjay Gunjyal said, adding that the formalities for the cremation of the victims were also taking time.
The Health Department has warned people in adjoining areas near Kedarnath not to consume river water as it may be highly polluted.
With the air thick with foul smell of decaying bodies in the area adjoining the Kedarnath shrine, the department has expressed apprehensions about spread of various diseases.
"We are now quickly cremating the bodies which have been recovered. But given the scale and nature of the tragedy, there is a likelihood that many bodies could still be lying in open spots, where rescue personnel have not been able to find or reach them," Ravikanth Raman, nodal officer of rescue operations in Guptkashi, said.
Reddy at his news conference said that 560 people have died in the disaster, 476 injured and about 344 people are still missing.
Reddy`s figures are lower to official estimates of 822 people having lost their lives in the rain fury.
The Centre, meanwhile, said no outbreak of any water, food or air-borne disease has been reported from the flood-affected areas of Uttarakhand.
A three-member high-level committee from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare is in Dehradun to review the public health situations with state health authorities. The team had left on Wednesday.
"No outbreak of water borne/food borne/air borne or direct contact diseases has been reported from affected areas," said a Health Ministry statement.