Flash floods collapse buildings, kill 112 people at popular Indian Kashmir tourist destination

By Aijaz Hussain, AP
Friday, August 6, 2010

Flash floods kill 112 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 112 people and injuring another 400, officials said Saturday.

Nine bodies were recovered overnight from the debris of collapsed homes in the remote region of Ladakh, said state police chief Kuldeep Khoda.

Heavy downpours triggered floods and mudslides in many places Friday, burying homes and toppling power and telecommunication towers, said Khoda.

Nearly 2,000 foreign tourists were in Ladakh, a popular destination for adventure sports enthusiasts when the calamity struck. There were no immediate reports of any foreigners being killed or injured.

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, Khoda said.

Police and 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.

Leh residents, police, paramilitary and army soldiers helped pull people out of deep mud and damaged homes, but rescue efforts were hampered by fast-moving 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.

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

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

“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.

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.

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

In Ladakh two soldiers were missing and 14 were injured, Brar said. Khoda said at least three policemen had been killed during rescue operations.

It was still unclear how many people were 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 (kilometers). Poor weather made it impossible for helicopters to fly into Ladakh with relief supplies.

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 floodwaters 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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