Death toll in Murree after a massive snowstorm surged to 23 as Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the rescue operation has been completed and all stuck vehicles have been removed.
According to Rescue officials, the death of a four-year-old girl has pushed the toll to 23. The minor girl died in Jhika Gali. She was suffering from severe cold and pneumonia.
The toll was later confirmed by interior minister in a statement on Saturday night.
The minister said that the situation can only be described as a “natural calamity” and that the area had witnessed “extreme snowfall”.
He told a private news channel late on Saturday night that rescue officials have checked all the vehicles stranded due to closure of roads due to heavy snowfall.
The minister said that the deaths were caused due to “suffocation”.
According to State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA), heavy machinery has been sent to rescue tourists in Murree.
USMAN BUZDAR: All families stranded in Murree have been shifted to government rest houses and hotels, Chief Minister Usman Buzdar said in a post on Twitter on Saturday evening.
“We are providing them basic facilities including food, medicines and warm clothes,” he wrote.
Citing police records, Buzdar said that there were a total of 33,745 vehicles in Murree till last night of which 33,373 vehicles have been evacuated.
The chief minister said that the expressway is “completely clear”, traffic is moving, albeit a little slow, on the Old GT Road, and snow and trees are being removed from the track from Kaldana to Barian.
“The entire management of the Rawalpindi division is taking part in rescue operations,” he added.
Earlier, taking notice of the chaos and emergency situation, Buzdar declared Murree calamity-hit area and directed to open the government’s offices and rest houses for the stranded tourists.
SHAHBAZ GILL: Meanwhile, Prime Minister’s aide on political communication Shahbaz Gill said that he had walked around various areas with the local administration to survey the situation.
He said when it began to snow heavily, a lot of people left their cars on the roads to seek shelter in hotels.
It is because of these cars that the flow of traffic hampered, Gill said.
“The administration remains active and is trying its utmost to ensure all roads are clear for traffic,” he said.
MET OFFICE WARNING: The Met Office had issued alert on Jan 5 that heavy snowfall may cause road closures in Murree, Galiyat, Nathiagali, Kaghan, Naran and other areas from Jan 6 to Jan 9 afternoon.
“All authorities concerned are particularly advised to remain ‘alert’ during the forecast period,” the Met Office had stated.
Murree received 6.5 inches of snowfall on Jan 5 (Wednesday), followed by 8.5 inches the next day while 16.5 inches were recorded from the morning of Jan 7 (Friday) up to Saturday morning.
“This is normal snowfall for Murree,” an official of the Met Office said.
Apart from posting such information on its website, these alerts and relevant information are forwarded to a large number of government departments by the Met Office directly.
However, soon after that on Jan 5, the administration of Murree tehsil issued a travel advisory, suggesting that tourists should get weather updates and traffic-related information prior to travelling to the hill station.
Since Murree is a tehsil of Rawalpindi district, no emergency meeting was convened by the deputy commissioner to assess the ground realities.
However, Rawalpindi Deputy Commissioner Mohammad Ali said on social media that an enhanced number of traffic wardens were deployed under the supervision of inspectors at all important points to facilitate tourists and regulate traffic flow.
In their tweet, the Rawalpindi police said on Jan 5 that the town had a parking capacity of nearly 3,500 vehicles while over 80,000 vehicles had entered Murree in the last two days.
When asked why the entry of tourists was not stopped at the toll plaza after Bhara Kahu, Mr Ali said all the entry points in Murree tehsil were closed after 6pm on Friday but it created another chaos as people continued pouring in from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab.
Meetings held by the NDMA with the Rawalpindi and Islamabad district administrations only discussed urban flooding in the twin cities.
“There was a possibility that the NDMA did not anticipate the disaster in Murree,” said a senior official of the Punjab government.
While relief and rescue efforts were underway for safe evacuation of stranded people in Murree, the NDMA developed coordination with other agencies, including the army, Rescue 1122, Rawalpindi district administration and the police department, on Saturday.
Army personnel have been called in to extend support to the vehicles stranded on roads which were blocked as there was no space to move ahead in the Murree city.
NDMA CHIEF: Talking to electronic media, NDMA Chairman Lt-Gen Akhtar Nawaz said joint efforts were being made to shift the stranded people to safe areas.
“Many people have already been transferred to safe areas and with the help of the district administration all commercial places including restaurants have been directed to make arrangements to accommodate additional people,” he said, adding: “Even the locals have been asked to accommodate the stranded tourists as much as possible.”
Responding to the calls, many local hotels have offered to extend help and a hotel has announced to provide free meal to the stranded tourists.
Teams from the FWO and army engineers along with the departments of civil administration have opened some roads, including the expressway and the road from Jhikagali to Gharial camp while the road from Jhikagali to Kuldana will be cleared by Saturday night.
Meanwhile, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Tourism Department on Saturday announced that Galiyat had been completely closed for next two days due to rains and snowfall.
In a tweet, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Integrated Tourism Development Project (KITE) appealed to the tourists not to travel to Galiyat for next two days.