Thousands of victims of Orissa cyclone still marooned as death toll doubles to 7,400

THE OFFICIAL death toll in India's cyclone disaster doubled yesterday to over 7,400 but could yet exceed 10,000, aid workers said.

"The death toll has risen to 7,474, with 6,383 deaths reported from Jagatsinghpur district," said an official in the stricken north-eastern state of Orissa, which was battered by storms and winds of up to 160mph 10 days ago.

The count had hovered at 3,500 for the past few days, but many more bodies are being recovered as flood waters recede.

The cremation of dead bodies was being speeded up yesterday to prevent the spread of disease reaching disaster proportions, but aid agencies warned that many destitute people were resorting to drinking filthy water from the flooded fields. Decomposing carcasses of cattle and other animals have already poisoned the water supply but thousands are desperate, having survived on almost nothing for nearly two weeks.

Aid workers and state officials fear outbreaks of typhoid, malaria and cholera. One outbreak of water-borne gastroenteritis caused 29 deaths and 3,000 serious illnesses, according to India's Health Secretary, Meena Gupta.

But even the plan for mass cremations was running into obstacles owing to a lack of firewood. Jiban Padhi, a resident of one of the worst hit villages, Ersama, said: "Predators are feeding on the carcasses, and the dead bodies are making things worse."

"There is no more mass cremation. Whenever we see a body, we immediately cremate it. There is no time to do the cremation in a systematic way." The air force was being used to drop volunteers equipped with kerosene to set fire to the rotting corpses wherever they found them.

A limited airlift of the starving and ill began on Tuesday as the flood waters receded enough to allow helicopters to land with aid. But many of the marooned were already so weak that they are not expected to survive.

The state health minister, Niranjan Patnaik, said the government had sent a large number of mobile hospital units to affected regions with large amounts of medicine. "The health situation as of now is not alarming but in these kinds of calamities there is always a chance of an epidemic," he said. "We have given instructions to all our rescue officers that if they feel that the condition of people was getting serious, they should be immediately airlifted to nearby hospitals for the best possible treatment."

But the authorities have been sharply criticised for their failure to act more quickly as the full scale of the calamity emerged. Millions have had their homes and their farms swept away and the numbers receiving aid are tiny. Lack of resources has even forced the government to shelve the grim task of flattening 16 villages filled with rotting corpses.

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