LUCKNOW, India (AP) — India's prime minister said Wednesday that the death toll from flooding this week in the northern state of Uttrakhand had surpassed 100 and could rise substantially.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke on his return from an aerial survey of the area, pegging the death toll at 102.
"It is feared that the loss of life could be much higher," he said.
Uttrakhand's top elected official, State Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna later told the New Delhi Television news channel that hundreds of people have lost their lives but that the exact number would be known only after a survey of the area.
A joint army and air force operation evacuated nearly 12,000 Hindu pilgrims stranded in a mountainous area by torrential monsoon rains and landslides, but nearly 63,000 people remained cut off, a senior official said Wednesday.
Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde earlier said the flooding in Uttrakhand washed away roads and nearly two dozen bridges and demolished 365 houses and partially damaged 275 others.
A three-story apartment building toppled into a river on Sunday and was carried away by the flood waters, said Amit Chandola, a Uttrakhand government spokesman, adding that a helicopter on its landing pad also was swept away. The government also said 40 small hotels on the banks of the Mandakini river in the Gaurikund area were destroyed by the swift-moving current.
Describing the situation as grim, Bahuguna said his administration was not equipped to tackle such a massive disaster, and asked for federal assistance. The region is 400 kilometers (250 miles) southwest of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state.
An additional 17 people have died since Sunday when their homes collapsed in Uttar Pradesh state, which borders Uttrakhand, said R.L. Vishwakarma, a state police officer.
The flooding has affected several states and the capital, New Delhi, where nearly 2,000 people have been evacuated to government-run camps on higher ground. Authorities there said the situation would ease as the level of the Yamuna River was expected to start receding Thursday afternoon.
Flooding is an annual occurrence in India, which depends on monsoon rains to sustain agriculture. But the heavy downpours also cause the loss of lives and property.
Most of those stranded in Uttrakhand are Hindu pilgrims to four revered shrines in the region. Bahuguna said the Kedarnath temple - one of the holiest Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, located atop the Garhwal Himalayan range - had escaped major damage, but up to 10 feet (four meters) of debris covered the area around it.
"We are fully engaged in rescuing people who have been stranded in the higher reaches," Bahuguna told reporters earlier. Nearly 600 people were evacuated by air force helicopters and the rest by the army using land routes.
With the sky over Uttrakhand clearing up Wednesday, the helicopter operation concentrated on the worst-hit Kedarnath temple area, which received 380 millimeters (14 inches) of rain in the past week, nearly five times the average for that time period,, said R.P.N. Singh, junior home minister.
Air force spokeswoman Priya Joshi said 22 helicopters have dropped food packets and other relief supplies in addition to ferrying stranded tourists. More than 5,000 soldiers helped bring thousands of homeless people to relief camps and provided them with food and medical supplies.