The death toll from flash floods and heavy rain could reach 1,000, officials in India said on Sunday, and ramped-up rescue efforts to help thousands still stranded at high altitudes might be slowed by more bad weather.
Rescuers have recovered more than 550 bodies in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand where an early monsoon began June 15 and caught scores unprepared, Agence France-Presse said.
Torrential rains flooded the Ganges River, devastating a region popular with tourist and pilgrims known as “Land of the Gods” for its revered Hindu shrines.
Many have been stranded there without food or water for five days.
“The death toll could be more than 750 – maybe around 1000,” Uttarakhand chief minister Vijay Bahuguna told AFP.
The number of casualties has already passed the 600 mark with another 40,000 people needing immediate help.
The news service said this year’s monsoon could be the worst since the 1950s.
More than 12,000 people were rescued by the ground and air force personnel braving rough weather and inhospitable terrain in Uttarakhand, the government told AFP, as distraught relatives waited for news of their loved ones.
Nothing is stopping swollen rivers, with vehicles, houses, buildings and entire villages washing away during the busy tourist season.
Reuters reported that 60 helicopters helped evacuate 150,000 people from the worst areas.
“Whatever is humanly possible is being done,” information minister Manish Tewari said.
Survivor Nishi Shrivastava told AFP she had to “navigate” among dead bodies strewn near the Kedarnath temple site.
“Bodies were lying everywhere. It was worse than a nightmare. I had lost all hope of seeing my family members again,” she said.
More bodies are suspected to be found in nearby jungles, where tourists are thought to have fled after their hotels were swamped.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a $170-million relief package for victims, saying families of those killed would receive 200,000 rupees each ($3,400), or 50,000 for those injured.
Secretary of State John Kerry in New Delhi said the US pledged $150,000 in aid.
The monsoon season normally ends in the subcontinent by September.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.
More from GlobalPost: Climate change ‘screams’ for action, Kerry tells Indian audience