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Large parts of northeastern India still underwater after record rains

A woman fills drinking water from a tube well in the flood-affected Barsimolua village in Nalbari district, in India's Assam state, on June 24. (Biju Boro/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — Authorities in northeastern India are airdropping water packets, sending kerosene supplies and racing to restore power after heavy rains drowned the city of Silchar, in the state of Assam.

It’s been a week since the city of nearly 230,000 people was submerged in what many describe as the worst floods in recent memory. Some neighborhoods are still under 5 to 8 feet of water.

The annual monsoon floods typically hit low-lying areas of Assam, a largely agrarian state, but the record rains this month fell so hard and so fast that they also overwhelmed urban areas such as Silchar.

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The situation in the city is “still very critical,” said Shamim Ahmed Laskar, a local official from the disaster management authority.

“The lanes are very narrow in many parts of the city,” he said. “Rescuers and relief workers are having a hard time taking boats to those areas.” The main challenge now, he said, was reaching those stranded without food, drinking water and medicine.

Water packets were being airdropped by drones and by the Indian Air Force, according to the Deccan Herald newspaper. Images from the state disaster management authority showed women standing in waist-deep water filling buckets for drinking water, while doctors at an inundated hospital said they were treating cancer patients in the street.

Though electricity has been restored in some areas, many residents are still without power. People crowded around a free mobile charging booth set up on a main road in Silchar, in a video shared by NDTV.

Biswa Kalyan Purkayastha, a 32-year-old journalist from the city, spent a week marooned on the second-floor terrace of his home with eight other people, including neighbors and family members.

When the flooding reached his neighborhood last Monday, Purkayastha and his brother stocked up on food and drinking water. Within a few hours, he said, there was 5 feet of water outside and it began to seep into their house. Soon, the water inside was up to their knees. The family strung a tarpaulin across the terrace and moved upstairs.

“We took some electronics and clothes,” he said. “For bathing and cooking, we collected rainwater in buckets.”

On Monday, the water had finally receded from their home, but the signs of calamity were still visible. “It never floods [in the area] we live in,” he said. “But the lane still has four feet of water.”

Sushmita Dev, an opposition leader from the region who is helping with rescue efforts, tweeted that the whole town feels like a “camp” and tens of thousands are suffering.

Other parts of Assam are also reeling. More than 130 people have been killed in the state and millions have been affected by the floods, which also devastated neighboring Bangladesh. Major rivers such as the Barak and its tributaries are overflowing.

A recent report by the Indian government’s science and technology department found that more than half of Assam is highly vulnerable to climate change.

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On Sunday, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the state’s chief minister, visited Silchar, wading through knee-high water in the streets. “If there is no fresh rainfall, flooding in the town should come down in the next 48 hours,” he said, according to Hindustan Times.

His office announced it was dispatching medicine and doctors from Guwahati, the state’s largest city. Supplies of kerosene are also being sent to Silchar and halogen torches and candles are being distributed to those without power.

Silchar has experienced major flooding before, but never at this scale. Though the floods in 1986 were “massive,” recalled Pranabananda Das, a 49-year-old editor of a local newspaper, the water didn’t rise so quickly back then, giving residents time to move to safer areas.

“This time the city was marooned within an hour or two,” Das said. “People had no time to escape.”

As residents try to get back on their feet, they are starting to make sense of what they’ve lost.

Tamojit Saha, a college professor, has survived on handouts since last week. He was rescued by his neighbors when water began to flood his house. “There is knee-deep water on the road outside,” he said, which has made it impossible for him to return home. But he is already mourning the loss of his library.

“All my precious collection of rare books and historical documents got washed away,” he said. “It is an irrevocable loss for me.”