August 31, 2008

Residents Prepare for Months of Recovery


By Gavin Rabinowitz

The Associated Press


The deluge came and turned his world to water, so Umesh Kushyaha decided to build a boat.

Kushyaha squatted Saturday hammering nails into his rickety- looking wooden rowboat on the side of the road, a lone strip of dry land that cuts across miles of water. He was preparing for what authorities say will be months more of life submerged under floodwater.

About 1.2 million people have been left homeless and scores have been killed in the impoverished state of Bihar in the two weeks since the monsoon-swollen Kosi river in neighboring Nepal burst its banks, dramatically changing course and spilling billions of gallons of water into the plains of northern India.

Authorities say hundreds of thousands remain stranded after their homes and villages were inundated, clinging to the roofs of houses or whatever dry speck of land they can find. An estimated 3 million residents of Bihar have been affected.

Those who could flee fled, piling their families, goats, chickens and sacks of grain into boats and heading for safety. Some waded for miles through the waters, carrying bundles of their belongings on their heads as they sought refuge.

But as the waters rushed in and flooded more than 750 villages and towns, many were unable to escape. Twenty people drowned Friday when their rescue boat capsized.

By Saturday, some 330,000 people had been rescued, said Prataya Amrit, secretary of the state's disaster management department. Many of them were being housed in state-run relief camps.

But while rescue efforts - buoyed by a $200 million Indian government relief fund - finally were picking up steam, officials warned that the flooding was spreading to new areas and the high waters would last for months.

Authorities say the breach in the Kosi embankment is more than a mile wide and growing every day, and they will not be able to fix it until late November, when the monsoon season is over and the torrent begins to subside.

"Since they say the waters will be here until the end of October, I'm making a boat," said Kushyaha, a 49-year-old farmer from the badly hit Saharsa district, some 750 miles northeast of New Delhi.

"We will be able to use it to get to the market and come back with supplies," he said.

At a nearby relief camp set up in a four-room high school, teachers said the government had asked them to look after people for two months.

"From tonight, we will begin supplying them with cooked food," said Rameshwar Prasad Mandal, pointing to sacks of rice and lentils stored in a classroom .

For many of the 800 people in the camp, it will be their first hot meal since the floods.

"We have had nothing to eat except some rice cakes and palm sugar," said Lalita Devi, a 28-year-old mother of four, who grabbed her children and two goats and fled when the waist-high water swept through her village.

Since then, they have been living with thousands of others camped out on the sides of the roads or railway, built on high embankments to prevent them being washed away.

The government says it has not yet been able to assess the extent of the devastation, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described as a national calamity.

"We will only be able to tell the extent after the water recedes," Amrit said. "But it is colossal."

Originally published by BY GAVIN RABINOWITZ.

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