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Rains paralyze Bombay, leaving hundreds dead

Thursday, July 28, 2005

BOMBAY, India -- India's financial capital was paralyzed Wed-nesday by the strongest rains ever recorded in the nation, with torrential downpours marooning drivers, snapping communication lines and leaving at least 200 people dead statewide.

At its worst, the rainfall descended in what looked like a solid wall of water, overwhelming Bombay, a crowded city long accustomed to monsoon rains.

"Never before in Bombay's history has this happened," said police commissioner A.N. Roy. "Our first priority is to rescue people stranded in floods."

"Approximately 200 dead bodies have already been recovered in the state," deputy chief minister R.R. Patil reported, saying an additional 100 deaths were feared across Maharashtra state, where Bombay is the capital.

At least 83 people have died in Bombay, crushed by falling walls, trapped in cars or electrocuted since the most intense rains swept through the city Tuesday evening, Patil said. Phone networks collapsed, highways were blocked and the city's airports, among the nation's busiest, were closed.

While Wednesday's precipitation was still being totaled, officials said parts of the city had been hit by up to 37.1 inches of rain Tuesday, much of it falling over just a few hours.

India's previous heaviest rainfall, recorded in the northeastern town of Cherrapunji -- one of the rainiest places on Earth -- was 33 inches on July 12, 1910, said R.V. Sharma, director of the meteorological department in Bombay.

Across Bombay, traffic was backed up all night and into Wednesday, with drivers abandoning their vehicles on roads turned into waist-high rivers. At one point, according to state-run All India Radio, about 150,000 people were stranded in railway stations.

Others stayed for hours on buses and trains surrounded by swirling water.

Such scenes have never before been seen in Bombay, a cosmopolitan city also known as Mumbai that is home to India's financial and movie industries. Every year, Bombay is brought to a halt for a day or two by heavy monsoon rains that drench the country between June and September.

But this week's downpours left the city reeling.

"Most places in India don't receive this kind of rainfall in a year. This is the highest ever recorded in India's history," Sharma said.

Home Minister Shivraj Patil said 633 people have died nationwide since June 1 in the heavy seasonal rains, which have washed away tens of thousands of homes, roads, railway tracks and bridges.

Maharashtra's top elected official, Vilasrao Deshmukh, ordered a two-day work stoppage early Wednesday to keep workers at home and called out the military to help.

"Inflatable rafts will be used to reach stranded people. Please try to stay where you are and don't leave your homes," he said.

Wednesday afternoon, as floodwaters started subsiding, the city began, just barely, to function. The road into Bombay's financial hub was cleared, though the two main highways, as well as hundreds of smaller roads, remained gridlocked. Skeletal train services connecting downtown areas to the suburbs resumed Wednesday afternoon, and flights resumed later.

Hundreds of schoolchildren spent the night in suburban schools.

Param Singh wept with relief after he walked nine hours through rain-flooded streets to reach his daughter's school, where she'd spent the night.

"It was horrible not knowing where she was, if she was stuck in a bus or alone at home since my wife is out of Bombay on work. I literally wept when I saw her," said Singh, his clothes drenched as he hugged his daughter.

State police reported landslides in Maharashtra's Raigad, Ratnagiri, Sindhudurg, and Kolhapur areas. Details weren't immediately available.

Rescuers started arriving Tuesday night in the village of Kondivali, 95 miles south of Bombay, hoping to extricate nearly 100 people trapped by a landslide, said police officer S. Jadav. At least 30 more people were feared buried in another mudslide in the nearby village of Jui.

"We have no information from them, all lines are dead," said another officer, P. Ranade.


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