By Jose Devasia and Sivaram Venkitasubramanian
KOCHI, India (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised the flood-ravaged state of Kerala more helicopters, boats and other equipment needed to evacuate tens of thousands of stranded people as he was given an aerial tour of stricken areas on Saturday.
There are growing fears that the death toll, already in the hundreds, could escalate rapidly, with so many people still marooned, desperate for food and potable water.
The chief minister of the southwestern state has estimated that two million people have been forced to move into relief camps since the monsoon season brought torrential rains three months ago.
He put the death toll from floods and landslides at 324. An official involved in the relief operations told Reuters on Saturday that 185 people had died since Aug. 8, when the waters began to rise, causing Kerala's worst floods in a century.
Modi was taken by helicopter over inundated farmland and villages, as India's military stepped up its response to an emergency that is still unfolding.
"More helicopters, boats and other equipment are being sought and the Modi promised to provide all of these as fast as possible," Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told journalists.
"The air marshal in charge of the air operations said more helicopters are on the way," Vijayan said.
The chief minister said initial estimates suggest the state may have lost 195 billion rupees ($2.78 billion) as a result of the floods.
Modi declared initial assistance of 5 billion rupees ($71.3 million) and promised more later, Vijayan said.
The prime minister also gave assurances that the federal government would send desperately needed grains, as storage in the state had been flooded and stocks destroyed.
As the rescue efforts ramped up, more army boats and helicopters were operating in the worst-affected areas to "save as many people as possible," the government official involved in the rescue operation told Reuters by telephone from Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital.
In some communities, thousands of people remained stranded on roof tops and upper floors, without food, water, and medicine.
Some people have died in relief camps too, officials said.
According to a lawmaker in Pathanamthitta district, some 10,000 people were stranded and in grave danger unless they were rescued urgently.
A Reuters witness in Aluva town, nearly 250 km (155 miles)from Thiruvananthapuram, said army helicopters airlifted up to 14 marooned residents, including children and elderly people from an apartment.
Joseph Moolakkaat, owner of an agricultural business, was trapped in a 10-storey block near the banks of the Periyar river in Aluva. The electricity was cut off three days earlier.
"There are seven families in this apartment now. We're safe compared to many others, but we're cut off," he told Reuters as the battery ran down on his cellphone.
"Water has started receding from today morning onwards. But our basement is still under water. Till yesterday night, around 1 km area around our apartment was under at least 3 ft of water."
Monsoon rains are likely to ease from Sunday, an official with the state-run India Meteorological Department told Reuters.
($1 = 70.09 rupees)
For the map, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2OKhKNt
For the graphic on Kerala underwater, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2L0MiIw
(Additional reporting by Arunkumar Koyyur, Gopakumar Warrier in BENGALURU, Sudarshan Varadhan in NEW DELHI, and Rajendra Jadhav in MUMBAI; writing by Mayank Bhardwaj; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)