Stranded by hundreds of miles of floodwaters and trapped on rooftops and trees, desperate villagers stormed rescue boats 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.
Some 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.
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.
Estimates of the number of dead range from scores to thousands. On Friday, 19 people drowned when their rescue boat capsized.