Pilgrim Season and Ill-Preparedness Contribute to India’s Flood Tragedy

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Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

A security personal opens a gate covered in posters of missing people, affected by the flash floods and landslides, at the Indian Air Force base in Dehradun, in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand June 26, 2013.

Rescue operations in the devastating Uttarakhand floods, which killed at least 822 people and displaced tens of thousands in the northern Indian state, is due to end on Friday after 11 days. But with thousands of people — most of them pilgrims paying seasonal visits to the state’s many temples and shrines — still stranded, and some 3,000 still missing, the disaster is far from over.

Dubbed the Himalayan Tsunami, the floods — surpassing in horror the 2008 deluge that killed 500 people died in the eastern Indian state of Bihar — were triggered by heavy pre-monsoon rains and caused major destruction. According to official estimates, the torrents affected 160,000 people and damaged 2,232 houses, 154 bridges and 1,520 roads. Over 100,000 people were evacuated by Thursday evening. Kedarnath, a small, high-altitude town that is home to the famous Kedarnath temple — a major pilgrimage destination for Hindus, was the worst hit. Hundreds of bodies, mostly of pilgrims, were found there.

(PHOTOS: Monsoon Rains Cause Flash Floods and Landslides in India)

With hope fading for survivors, the authorities have decided to shift attention to providing relief. “Our priority now is to ensure regular supply of essential commodities and establish communication links with all inaccessible villages and rehabilitate affected people,” India’s Home Secretary R.K. Singh said. “In case a village is cut off and there are sick and infirm in need of medical attention, we will have them evacuated. We will also look for all missing people.”

In the aftermath of the disaster, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said that 200,000 rupees ($3,400) would be given to each bereaved family and 50,000 rupees (around $847) paid to those injured. Singh also promised 10 billion rupees (around $170 million) in disaster relief. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on a two-day visit to India, announced a USAID donation of $150,000 to the flood-relief effort and warned India not to dismiss the deadly intensity of the floods as a one-off tragedy. “Perhaps Mother Nature in her own way is telling us to heed some warnings,” he said. “Today the science of climate change is screaming at us for action.”

(MORE: Devastating North India Floods Likely Worsened by Tourist Boom)

Unfortunate timing also contributed to the high casualty rate. The state was thronged with pilgrims eager to visit shrines before they close in July at the onset of the monsoons. “Nobody was prepared for rainfalls two weeks ahead — that led to no control on tourists and pilgrims,” Sanjay Vashist, director of Climate Action Network (South Asia) told TIME. “Climate-change-induced intense rain in a short time washed away the poor infrastructure.”

A damning report in April by the Comptroller and Auditor General, slamming the National Disaster Management Authority as well as the state of Uttarakhand for poor preparedness, has also emerged as grimly prophetic. “No plan was prepared in the state for early warning,” the report found. “The communication system was inadequate. This resulted in delayed information to vulnerable population.”

Meanwhile, there are fears of landslides, especially if the heavy rains continue. Climate-change experts say in order to make the region safer, India needs to make urgent improvements in infrastructure, coordination, and exchange of information between government bodies. “We need efficient coordination between our agencies, not just during disasters but all year through,” Vashist says. “We need to focus more on preparedness, on climate-proof infrastructure and effective mechanism for resettling and rehabilitating affected population.”

VIDEO: Reporter Fired for Covering Flood Atop Victim’s Shoulders in India