Severe dust storms across northern India have killed more than 100 people, destroyed homes and left hundreds without electricity.
Billowing clouds of thick dust and sand frequently blow across the region during the dry season, but the death toll from this week’s storms has been unusually high.
At least 64 people have died in Uttar Pradesh state, most of them in Agra district where the Taj Mahal is located. Another 35 are confirmed to have died in Rajasthan and two each in Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh. The death toll in all four states could still rise.
The destruction has extended to Punjab and Haryana, where trees were uprooted and power supplies cut by the squall. Less intense storms in Delhi caused traffic jams and flight diversions.
At least 160 animals also died in the storms, according to officials in Uttar Pradesh.
The dust clouds were trailed by thunder and lightning storms, heavy rain and strong winds that were expected to last another 24 hours at least.
Most of the deaths occurred when houses people were sleeping in collapsed overnight, disaster management officials said.
Falling pylons and trees also contributed to the death toll.
The dust storms are created by a rapid ascent of warm air, which creates a vacuum that air closer to the ground rushes to fill, taking sand and dust with it.
Meteorologists said abnormally high temperatures in past weeks had contributed to the disaster. “It can be called a freak accident,” Mahesh Palawat, a meteorologist at the private forecaster Skymet Weather told the Hindustan Times.
“Dust storms are usually not this intense nor do these systems cover such a large area.”
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, who is in southern India campaigning ahead of an important state election, said he was saddened by the loss of life. “Condolences to the bereaved families,” he tweeted. “May the injured recover soon.”
Similar storms last month killed at least 19 people in Rajasthan and 15 people in Uttar Pradesh, where they also damaged the Taj Mahal. Heritage officials said the monument had not been affected by the past week’s storms.