Flash floods collapse buildings, kill 103in Indian-held Kashmir tourist destination

By Aijaz Hussain, AP
Friday, August 6, 2010

Flash floods kill 103 in Indian-held Kashmir

SRINAGAR, India — A cloudburst followed by flash floods hit a Himalayan desert region in Indian-controlled Kashmir, sending rivers of mud down mountainsides and killing at least 103 people Friday, officials said.

Nearly 2,000 foreign tourists were in the remote region of Ladakh, a popular destination for adventure sports enthusiasts, at the time, said a tourism department official in Srinagar. There were no immediate reports of any foreigners being killed or injured in the floods that started around midnight, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

An army spokesman said 100 foreign tourists, mostly Europeans, had been rescued.

At least 370 people were injured, as gushing waters swept away houses, cars and buses in a 60-square mile (150-square kilometer) swath in and around Leh, the main town in Ladakh.

The thunderstorm followed by heavy downpours triggered floods and mudslides in many places early Friday, burying houses and toppling power and telecommunication towers, said state police chief Kuldeep Khoda.

The airport in Leh was damaged, most communications were cut and Leh’s state-run civil hospital was damaged as torrents of water flooded large parts of the town.

Leh residents, police, paramilitary and army soldiers helped pull people out of knee-deep mud and damaged homes, but rescue efforts were hampered by gushing water and debris, Khoda said.

“It’s a sea of mud,” said Josh Schrei, a New York-based photographer on a trekking holiday in Ladakh.

Schrei said the powerful thunderstorm followed by a hailstorm had devastated many areas in Leh.

“The bus station in the town was washed away and the area is covered in mud. Buses were everywhere. Some of the buses have been carried more than a mile (2 kilometers) by the mud,” Schrei said.

The mud was around 10 feet (3 meters) high in places. “A school building in Leh was buried under mud, with just the basketball hoop sticking out of the mud,” Schrei said.

Police and army soldiers rescued more than 150 people, including 100 foreign tourists, mostly Europeans, stranded in Pang village, northeast of Leh, army spokesman Lt. Col. J.S. Brar said in Srinagar, the main city in India’s portion of Kashmir.

August is peak tourist season when thousands of Western tourists and backpackers flock to Ladakh, about 280 miles (450 kilometers) east of Srinagar. It is a high-altitude desert, with a stark moonscape-like terrain, about 11,500 feet (3,500 meters) above sea level. Ladakh has very low precipitation and the heavy downpour was a rare occurrence.

Ladakh is a largely Buddhist area and has been untouched by anti-India civil unrest by Kashmiri Muslims that has gripped large parts of Indian Kashmir for nearly two months. At least 49 people have died in the violence.

The deluge came as neighboring Pakistan suffered from the worst flooding in decades, with millions displaced and 1,500 dead.

In Ladakh, at least three army bases were hit by flood waters. Two soldiers were missing and nearly 14 were injured, Brar said. Khoda said that at least three policemen had been killed during rescue operations.

It was still unclear how many people have been left homeless, but Khoda said at least 2,000 displaced people had been housed in two government-run shelters.

The floods damaged highways leading to Leh town in many places, making it difficult for trucks with relief supplies to enter Ladakh and tourists to move out of the area.

“Roads have been washed away and wherever they are intact, sheets of mud have covered them making them difficult for use,” Brar said.

The main highway linking Leh to the nearby holiday resort of Manali was blocked by landslides. The only other highway linking Ladakh was partially open and vehicles waiting to cross had backed up for miles. Poor weather has made it impossible for even helicopters to fly into Ladakh with relief supplies.

Explaining the devastating impact of the sudden rains, Prof. Shakeel Romshoo, a geologist at Kashmir University in Srinagar, said new rivulets had cut deep channels in the mountain gorges of the region and flood waters had inundated low-lying areas.

“It’s a challenging topography with steep and unstable slopes. Water flow and velocity being very high, the flash floods have caused huge damage,” he said.

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