There was one thing different about this year's monsoon in India. As in so many seasons past, the annual rains began in June, flooding streets and villages and claiming dozens of lives. But when the Kosi River burst its banks on Aug. 18 in the northeastern state of Bihar, the destruction was much worse than anyone expected. "It is not a normal flood, but a catastrophe," Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar told reporters after flying over the affected areas.
After the river breached, it headed south and soon flooded the villages in its path. More than 2.1 million people in the worst-hit parts of Bihar are not only homeless but stranded, and 55 have been killed as the floods washed out the roads and railroad lines that connected residents to the rest of the country. "We can't reach there," says Dinesh Kumar Mishra, a civil engineer and head of the non-profit group Barh Mukti Abhiyan (Freedom from Floods Campaign), who spoke to TIME from northern Bihar, where he is trying to organize relief efforts. "They are trapped." Mishra, who has been tracking monsoon floods for more than 20 years, says this year's flooding in Bihar is worse than previous years. "It is concentrated in a capsule form in one particular area," he says. Other monsoons may have killed or displaced more people, but the destruction was spread out over a larger territory.
India's government has been swift to offer help. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the floods "a national calamity" and ordered that the state of Bihar get nearly $230 million in aid and 125,000 tons of food. But Bihar's Kumar, who took office in 2005 with a mandate to improve governance in a state that is almost synonymous in India with misery and corruption, has come under fierce criticism for mismanagement in the last days in New Delhi. "It is a complete failure of the state government," said Ram Vilas Paswan, a minister in the central government and member of Parliament from Bihar. Mishra says that Kumar should have called in Navy days ago, as soon as it became clear that aid would not be able to reach the flooded district via road or rail.
But Kumar may have inherited a disaster waiting to happen. He reportedly showed the Prime Minister's office satellite photos indicating that the river had slowly been changing course for years, but that the previous administration failed to reinforce the areas where embankments were coming under increased pressure. Because the Kosi River lies along Bihar's border with Nepal and initially breached on the Nepali side, whatever efforts Kumar did make may have been slowed down. The Indian Express newspaper reported that Kumar sought help from the central government in getting Nepal's co-operation, but was rebuffed.
So far, food aid has reached only to the peripheries of the flood affected areas. Unable to wait for help any longer, those at the center of the floods have begun an exodus, mainly on foot or on the few boats available. The pictures of those stranded standing on bits of highway but surrounded by water and looking up at the helicopters they hope might save them will look familiar to anyone who saw the images of the rooftops of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. India has grown accustomed to natural disaster, but like its North American cousin, this one also looks manmade.