Uttarakhand floods: 26 bodies recovered, 171 missing; rescue ops on, experts trying to determine cause of disaster

The State Emergency Operation Centre said 27 people were rescued alive — 12 from the smaller of the two tunnels at the Tapovan-Vishnugad project site and 15 from the Rishi Ganga site

FP Staff February 09, 2021 00:31:22 IST
Uttarakhand floods: 26 bodies recovered, 171 missing; rescue ops on, experts trying to determine cause of disaster

ITBP personnel use machinery to clear muck as they try to rescue power plant workers trapped in a tunnel after part of a Himalayan glacier broke off Sunday and sent a wall of water and debris rushing down the mountain in Tapovan area of Uttarakhand. (ITBP via AP)

The toll in the Uttarkhand disaster apparently caused by glacier burst has risen to 26  with more bodies being recovered while 171 persons are still missing, officials told news agency PTI  on Monday.

Officials at the State Emergency Operation Centre reported the recovery of more bodies and feared the toll would rise, a day after a portion of the Nanda Devi glacier possibly burst through its banks in Chamoli district.

It appeared to have triggered an avalanche and a deluge that ripped through the Alaknanda river system in the upper reaches of the ecologically fragile Himalayas.

Two power projects  — NTPC's 480 MW Tapovan-Vishnugad project and the 13.2 MW Rishi Ganga Hydel Project — were extensively damaged with scores of labourers caught in tunnels as the waters came rushing in.

The missing people include those working at the hydel power project sites and villagers whose homes nearby were washed away, officials said.

Experts, however, are still trying to determine the exact cause of the disaster in Joshimath. "It was due to lakhs of metric tonnes of snow sliding down abruptly from a trigger point on top of a naked hill," Uttarakhand chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat told reporters after meeting ISRO scientists.

"According to the scientists, the area where the calamity struck is not prone to avalanches and apparently it was not caused by a glacier burst as initial reports suggested," he said. He also appealed to people to not make the tragedy an occasion for building an "anti-development narrative.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured a delegation of Uttarakhand MPs of his government's support to the people of the state and said it is working to strengthen infrastructure there to deal with any natural disaster in future.

 

Efforts on to rescue those trapped, says CM

On Monday evening, Uttarakhand chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat was briefed by ITBP Western Command ADG MS Rawat — who reached the spot on Monday morning — on the operations being carried out at the Tapovan tunnel at Joshimath.

Speaking to reporters, Rawat said," A joint team of the NDRF, SDRF and the Army is conducting a rescue operation. The team has reached the 130-metre mark in Tapovan tunnel, it may take 2-3 hrs to reach the t-point. Efforts underway to safely rescue those who are stuck in the tunnel."

Rawat also chaired a multi agency meeting on the rescue efforts in Tapovan.

In a tweet earlier, the Uttarakhand chief minister had said, "I am leaving for Joshimath and will be spending night there. Tomorrow I plan to visit the affected areas and will also meet people. Our relief and rescue operations are continuing in full swing and we are doing best to save lives."

According to PTI, Uttarakhand Director General of Police Ashok Kumar said that efforts were focussed on rescuing 30-35 labourers trapped in a 250-metre tunnel at Tapovan.

The rescue efforts in the affected areas near Joshimath, about 295 km from Dehradun, gained momentum with teams of the Army, Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) coordinating to rescue those feared feared trapped in a tunnel at the Tapovan-Vishnugad project.

Sniffer dogs and heavy mechanical equipment, including bulldozers and JCBs, were deployed in the areas to aid the rescue workers. While Indian Air Force teams left for the affected areas to ramp up relief efforts, personnel from multiple forces worked through the night.

"Our teams worked overnight to rescue about 30 workers who are trapped in the tunnel. Specialised equipment for such operations has been deployed. We are hopeful we will able to rescue everyone," ITBP spokesperson Vivek Kumar Pandey told PTI in Delhi.

The work was complicated by the fact that the tunnel is slightly curved, making difficult to clear the slush, debris and silt blocking it.

"There is a huge amount of debris inside the tunnel. About 80 metres inside the tunnel is cleared and accessible, and it looks like about 100 more metres of debris will have to be cleared," he added. Pandey said nearly 300 ITBP personnel are currently deployed at the site.

Another official said 34 people are estimated to be trapped in the ''head race tunnel'' or HRT.

The entire landscape was coloured a sandy grey, many structures swept away and buried under piles of silt. Thirteen villages are cut off due to the damage to roads and bridges, Uttarakhand Director General of Police Ashok Kumar said. Essential food supplies are being sent there by helicopters.

The State Emergency Operation Centre said 27 people were rescued alive. Of these, 12 were saved from the smaller of the two tunnels at the Tapovan-Vishnugad project site and 15 from the Rishi Ganga site.

DRDO, ISRO to study cause of tragedy, says Rawat

In an interview with PTI, the Uttarakhand chief minister had said a comprehensive analysis of the entire incident is being carried out to avert future tragedies, and asserted the immediate priority was to provide food and other assistance to the affected people.

Rawat said the incident appeared to have happened due to the breaking of the glacier and the Chief Secretary has been instructed to find out the real reasons.

"A DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) team is already studying the cause of this tragedy and we have also sought the help of ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) scientists and experts for the same," he said.

"We will build an elaborate plan to avert any potential tragedy going forward" after a comprehensive analysis is carried out into the cause of the incident, Rawat said.

"We have made all arrangements needed for the rescue and relief operations along with providing healthcare facilities to the affected people. Most importantly, we are working on re-establishing the connectivity to the affected villages," he told the news agency, adding that the extent of economic loss will be ascertained in due course.

"The Rishiganga Power Corporation and the NTPC are assessing the damage to their projects. But, right now our topmost priority is to save lives and rehabilitate the affected people," he said.

Rawat said multiple teams have been drawn, both from the Centre and the state's disaster relief agencies, along with the defence forces who have been convened to lead the huge rescue operations. The state's Director General of Police has been camping in the affected areas since Sunday while the Garhwal Commissioner and the DIG Garhwal have also been instructed to remain there, he said.

"The entire team of the district administration has been engaged in the relief and rescue operations in the area since Sunday. Officers from other districts have also been sent on the spot so that the post-mortem of the dead bodies found can be done on priority," Rawat said.

"Prime Minister Modi has also announced a financial assistance of Rs 2 lakh each to the dependents of the deceased," Rawat added.

On the support from other quarters, he said President Ram Nath Kovind, Home Minister Amit Shah, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, CDS General Vipin Rawat, among others have assured of all possible cooperation.

Union ministers Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank and RK Singh as well as Pauri MP Tirath Singh Rawat, Uttarakhand minister Dhan Singh Rawat also met the affected families in disaster-hit Tapovan and Raini and assured them of all support.

RK Singh said the glacier burst has caused an estimated loss of Rs 1,500 crore at the Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel project and has put a question mark on its scheduled commissioning in 2023.

"The project was scheduled to be commissioned in 2023. But there is a question mark now on how long it will take to desilt it as lakhs of tonnes of silt is lying at the project site," Singh told reporters in Tapovan. "As of now it is difficult to say when we will be able to resume work at the site and when the project will be commissioned," he said.

However, the Union minister ruled out any possibility of the project being scrapped.

In a video provided by the force, a team of senior officials was seen analysing the tunnel's map to find the best way of approach. The tunnel has only one entry, an official said.

Teams of the NDRF had reached late Sunday night and were seen using shovels to clear the tunnel's approach. The force also used canine squads to help rescuers detect traces of life under the debris.

More teams have been sent to the site on Mi-17 helicopters that landed at the helipad in Joshimath, NDRF chief SN Pradhan said in a Twitter post.

With no clarity on what led to the disaster and experts pointing to climate change, scientists also headed to Chamoli to understand what had happened.

Some teams from the Army, including from the Medical Corps, have also reached the disaster spot, a senior official supervising the operation said.

Three of those rescued on Sunday evening were admitted to the ITBP hospital at Joshimath, nearly 25 km from the Tapovan power project site, as they were feeling uneasy, the officials said. They are stable now. As rescue efforts continued on a war footing, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the United Nations stands ready to contribute to the ongoing rescue and assistance efforts in Uttarakhand if necessary.

“The Secretary-General is deeply saddened by the reported loss of life and dozens missing following the glacier burst and subsequent flooding in Uttarakhand state, India, on Sunday,” said Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for Guterres.

Expressing solidarity with those affected by the glacier burst, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said the whole country is with the people of the state and it is important that relief operations are not hindered in the next few days.

With inputs from PTI

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