September 1, 2008

Floods in India Trap Thousands

TRIVENIGANJ, India (AP)- Stranded by hundreds of miles of floodwaters and trapped on rooftops and trees, desperate villagers stormed rescue boats on Sunday as they tried to escape the flooding that tore through a riverbank and spilled over northern India's vast plains.

Two weeks after the Kosi River overflowed its banks, Indian officials commandeered private watercraft after hearing that boat owners were charging people up to $150 each for a lifesaving ride - an impossibly large amount for those marooned in impoverished villages where many survive on a dollar a day.

At a makeshift command post on a bridge outside Triveniganj, near the Nepal border, boats filled with survivors arrived every 10 or 15 minutes. Anything rescuers could scrounge was put to work - bright orange rubber dinghies, rickety wooden rowboats, canoes and shallow- bottomed army transports that appeared pulled straight from World War II.

Each time a boat docked, the crowd surged forward, hoping for news about loved ones. Many were outraged, saying the rescue was too slow and very little aid was reaching those trapped.

Angry cries turned to silence as a canoe came in with a shrouded body strapped on top. Perched next to the body were the dead woman's daughter and son-in-law.

"She died of starvation," said Sanjay Kumar, 55-year-old Surji Devi's son-in-law, as onlookers placed burning incense on the body.

"We were trying to survive on just water for the last 10 days, but it's not enough," said the woman's 27-year-old daughter, Asha.

About 1.2 million people have been left homeless in the two weeks since the Kosi River in neighboring Nepal dramatically changed course and spilled billions of gallons of water into the plains of northern India's Bihar state.

"We were trapped with nothing after our houses were swept away," said Lakshmi Devi, 24, as she left a boat with her husband and two small crying children. All they brought with them was a plastic bag of clothes.

They found shelter on the school's roof, the only concrete building in their village of mud and thatch huts.

Estimates of the number of dead range from scores to thousands. On Friday, 19 people drowned when their rescue boat capsized.

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