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Floods in India strand hundreds of thousands

Private boats put into rescue effort

People displaced by flooding carried their belongings as they waited to be rescued yesterday in Chondipur village in India's Bihar state. About 700,000 people are trapped in remote areas. People displaced by flooding carried their belongings as they waited to be rescued yesterday in Chondipur village in India's Bihar state. About 700,000 people are trapped in remote areas. (RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI/REUTERS)
By Gavin Rabinowitz
Associated Press / September 1, 2008
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TRIVENIGANJ, India - Stranded by hundreds of miles of floodwaters and trapped on rooftops and trees, desperate villagers stormed rescue boats yesterday 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 boats after hearing that owners were charging people up to $150 each for a lifesaving ride - an impossibly large amount for many of 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 in it. 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.

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.

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

About 700,000 people are still trapped with little or no food. The breach in the riverbank is more than a mile long and growing every day, and authorities say it can't be repaired until the monsoon season tapers off in November.

In the flooded villages, hundreds of people scrambled to get on each boat, wading through chest-high waters with suitcases on their heads.

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