Rescuers help people to safer areas in Patna, India, Saturday, Aug. 30, 2008. A rescue boat filled with flood victims capsized and killed 20 people in northern India, where monsoon flooding grew worse because of heavy rain and water flowing from neighboring Nepal, officials said Saturday (AP Photo).
SAHARSA, India - The deluge came and turned his world to water, so Umesh Kushyaha decided to build a boat.
Kushyaha squatted Saturday hammering nails into his rickety-looking wooden row boat on the side of the road, a lone strip of dry land that cuts across miles of water. He was preparing for what authorities say will be months more of life submerged under flood waters.
About 1.2 million people have been left homeless and scores have been killed in the impoverished state of Bihar in the two weeks since the monsoon-swollen Kosi river in neighboring Nepal burst its banks, dramatically changing course and spilling billions of gallons of water into the plains of northern India.
Authorities say hundreds of thousands remain stranded after their homes and villages were inundated, clinging to the roofs of houses or whatever dry speck of land they can find. An estimated 3 million residents of Bihar have been affected.
Those who could flee fled, piling their families, goats, chickens and sacks of grain into boats and heading for safety. Some waded for miles through the waters, carrying bundles of their belongings on their heads as they sought refuge.
But as the waters rushed in and flooded more than 750 villages and towns, many were unable to escape. Twenty people drowned Friday when their rescue boat capsized.
By Saturday, some 330,000 people had been rescued, said Prataya Amrit, secretary of the state's disaster management department. Many of them were being housed in state-run relief camps.
But while rescue efforts — buoyed by a $200 million Indian government relief fund — were finally picking up steam, officials warned the flooding was spreading to new areas and the high waters would last for months.
Authorities say the breach in the Kosi embankment is more than a mile wide and growing every day, and they will be able to fix it until late November, when the monsoon ends and the torrent begins to subside.
"Since they say the waters will be here until the end of October, I'm making a boat," said Kushyaha, a 49-year-old farmer from the badly hit Saharsa district, some 750 miles northeast of New Delhi.
"We will be able to use it to get to the market and come back with supplies," he said.
At a nearby relief camp set up in a four-room high school, teachers said the government had asked them to look after people for two months.
"From tonight, we will begin supplying them with cooked food," said Rameshwar Prasad Mandal pointing to sacks of rice and lentils stored in a classroom under the watchful eye of a portrait of Indira Gandhi, India's prime minister in the 1970s.
For many of the 800 people in the camp, it will be the first hot meal since the floods.
"We have had nothing to eat except some rice cakes and palm sugar," said Lalita Devi, a 28-year-old mother of four, who grabbed her children and two goats and fled when the waste-high water swept through her village.
Since then, they have been living with thousands of others camped out on the sides of the roads or railway, which are built on high embankments to prevent them being washed away.
India's monsoon season, which lasts from June to September, brings rain vital for the country's farmers but also often causes massive destruction.
This flooding, however, is different from the annual monsoon deluge.
Apart from the roads, the vast plains have been turned into a massive lake, with only an occasional tree or rooftop breaking the surface.
The waters are deceptively placid in places but swirling and menacing in others where dozens of workers pile sandbags and rocks on the road embankments, trying to strengthen them and prevent these last vital links from being washed away.
Those who have made it to the few points of high ground consider themselves lucky. The government has some 900 boats carrying out rescue operations but they have not even penetrated some regions.
D. R. Ayub was trapped on the roof of his home for more than 10 days until he managed to get word to his brother-in-law who owns a boat.
"We did not see anything of the government," he said as he wearily clambered out the rescue boat, which he had shared with 100 others people and several goats.
The boat was heading back to the village where about 1,000 more people were waiting, he said.
But not everyone wanted to leave their homes.
Nearby, a government worker was loading relief packets — each containing 5.5 pounds of rice, 9 ounces of sugar and a matchbox and a candle — into a boat along with 300 polyester sheets to use for shelter.
They were for people who were refusing to leave their homes, fearing looters, said the worker, Binod Senha.
The government says it has not yet been able to asses the extent of the devastation, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described as a national calamity.
"We will only be able to tell the extent after the water recedes," said Amrit. "But it is colossal."