The recent Kerala floods was undoubted, the worst natural calamity experienced by the state in the living memory. Generally, Kerala receives some of the highest rainfall of the country during the monsoon season. But, during 2018, Kerala experienced its highest level in decades. The India Meteorological Department states that the state received 2346.3 mm of rainfall while the average was 1649.55 mm. In fact, the state received more than 2 ½ times more rainfall of the average in August alone. From August 1st to 19th, the state received nearly 750 mm of rainfall while the average is just 287.6 mm.
This unprecedented rainfall is known to be caused by a low-pressure spell over the region. The southwest monsoon perfectly timed with the two low-pressure systems formed over Odisha and Bay of Bengal.
Kerala has a whopping number of 41 rivers flowing into the Arabian Sea. 80 dams were opened after the heavy downpours, creating havoc. The impact of the Kerala floods can be better understood when the incidents are explained by a victim. The subject of this case study is Mr. Alexander Charles, a BPO employee from Ernakulam, one of the worst affected districts.
Question: Hello Mr. Alex, can you brief about your family and career to begin with?
Answer: Hi, I live with my wife in an apartment in a busy area in Ernakulam. I work in a BPO office here. My parents live in a village near Trivandrum.
Question: Can you recollect on how the rains started?
Answer: Well, Kerala has been receiving unusually high rainfall from May. However, in the second week of August, the situation was worse. There was a heavy downpour that affected our daily lives. From the television channels, we came to know how the dam levels rose across the state and there were possibilities of floods. The Chalakuddy River overflowed and the Neyyar Dam level rose. The news of landslides in Kannur district panicked us.
24 dams across the state were opened on August 9th and the news petrified us. What’s more, the Idikki Dam that wasn’t opened in 26 years was opened. This news really hit us hard! Our daily lives in Ernakulam were also affected due to the heavy downpour. Perhaps, I couldn’t make it to the office. I worked from home on my laptop. There were landslides reported in Idukki, Malappuram, Kozhikode, Wayanad, Kannur and Palakkad. Landslides were not too common in Kerala. So, it was alarming.
Question: How did you prepare yourself to face the floods?
Answer: Continuous rains did not allow us to do anything. In fact, we were stranded inside the house. We did not have much time to prepare. We were of the thought that being in a city like Ernakulam, we wouldn’t face critical issues. The bottom line is, we were not prepared.
Question: What kind of problems did you face initially?
Answer: The first issue was power cut, naturally. The UPS did not last long. Speaking of grocery supplies, since we had just purchased for the month, we didn’t run short of those. But again, availability of drinking water was a concern. Shortage of drinking water and lack of electricity seemed like a threat. The communication lines were also severely affected. The mobile phones and internet did not connect efficiently.
The flood-affected areas of the city were totally shut down with banks, supermarkets, offices, educational institutions, petty shops and ATMs closed. There were no transport facilities. Trains and buses were suspended. Even the Cochin International Airport was closed. Life almost came to a halt.
Question: Were you able to connect with friends and family?
Answer: From the little connectivity we had through mobile phones, we spoke with several friends and acquaintances across Kerala. Of course, not all of them were reachable. Due to power crisis, the mobile phones of most people remained switched off and not reachable. And, that was a huge problem as we were not able to know the condition of our kith and kin. Fear seeped in badly during those circumstances when connectivity was an issue and we perhaps felt like we were stranded in an unknown island where one couldn’t survive! It was the worst nightmare.
Question: Can you explain more about how the situation progressed?
Answer: Well, it did not progress. It just became worse with every passing day. More and more dams were opened across Kerala, posing severe threat to the lives of people. We heard that our chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan had undertaken an aerial survey of the affected regions across the state. Red alert was issued across eight districts. More and more houses were destroyed due to landslides and floods. Eventually, the death toll also increased day after day.
In fact, on August 12th, Indian Union Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, undertook an aerial survey of Idukku and Ernakulam and saw that the situation was very serious. He also announced an immediate flood fund release of Rs. 100 crore.
A lot of relief camps were set up in all the flood-affected areas of the state.
Question: Onam was to be celebrated during this period. How did Onam celebrations go on?
Needless to mention, nobody, even those who were in the safe zone, were in a mindset to celebrate the most traditional and crucial festival of Kerala, Onam. In fact, the government of Kerala canceled the official Onam celebrations.
Instead, the people of Kerala showed their unity in standing for each other and saving the lives of those in danger. It was really an emotional period for the Keralites wherein brotherhood took over more than anything else.
Question: When did you feel you were amidst actual crisis?
Answer: Following heavy rains for about a week, on the 15th of the August, the gates of 35 dams were opened in the state. For the first time in history, all the five gates of the majestic Idukki Dam were opened. A lot of people who lived in the surrounding areas were relocated. The next day, owing to more dams being opened, there were floods and landslides reported in 87 areas across the state. This left hundreds of people isolated. Also, the public transport system came to a halt in many places.
In our place, Ernakulam, drinking water was not supplied. More units of NDRF were appointed. Also, Navy’s marine commandos were deployed. A lot of fishermen joined the rescue operations. So, it was on August 15th, Independence Day that the situation became really worse, ironically though!
Question: What kind of measures was taken by the government and other sources?
Answer: In two days of heavy rains and normal life coming to a halt, navy and NDRF personnel were seen in Ernakulam. As I mentioned before, relief camps were set up and the chief minister and Union home minister undertook aerial surveys to come up with relief measures. Volunteers flowed from neighboring states. Many corporate firms, private businesses, celebrities and NGOs extended help in the form of money, food, medicine and other essentials to sustain life.
Question: You said you live in an apartment. So, which floor do you live and how did the floods affect life at home? Narrate the series of incidents that took place after water seeped in.
Answer: We live in the first floor of the apartment complex. On August 15th, water had seeped into the ground floor. None of us were able to get down to the streets. We couldn’t move out to take refugee elsewhere.
On August 16th, the water levels reached the first floor. And, we tried calling the help lines provided. Some of them said that they would soon send people to help and the others weren’t sure about what exactly they could do. We waited for six long hours. For every sound we heard, we rushed out and saw what it was. At last, we heard a helicopter nearing. I immediately rushed to the terrace and waved a red piece of cloth from there. Suddenly, I saw a fishing boat stopping by. There were two guys from the next street, who I am not too acquainted with, on the boat almost at the height of our floor!
They informed me that the Indian Navy seemed to be airlifting those stranded from a roof nearby. The fishing boat they came in was old and looked unused for many years. However, we did not have a choice. When they asked us to get on to it, we did not have a second opinion. What was more intimidating is that the two guys had no idea about rowing a boat. But, they were just trying to move from place to place. Our only thought was survival. They made us get on to the boat by rowing the boat to the nearby electrical pole; they then held onto the cables and then pulled it towards us. Since there was no power, we did not worry about any electric shocks.
Before we got on the boat, I could still remember how the fishing boat entered the apartment’s first floor. I felt like we were in a harbour! After the boat entered another house in the first floor, the guys docked the boat right at the staircase that we use to go up to the terrace. We waited for some time there in the boat. Sooner, the helicopter approached us and we were eventually airlifted and shifted to the naval base.
We were at the camp set up at the naval base. I could get medicine for my wife there. My neighbor’s son was given some toys and a coloring book. Biscuit packets and bread loaves were distributed. While our home was ruined in the floods, I was happy that we were safe. I saw small kids playing happily in the camp as if there were enjoying a holiday. That was the only sign of relief for our eyes.
To make things worse, even the camp where we took refuge got flooded. But, we could manage.
Question: What was going on in your mind when you were airlifted?
Answer: It was a completely thrilling experience. I had mixed emotions when leaving my house that was flooded. I wondered if I would ever again step into the house. I wanted to take with me everything but I know I cannot. So, I just took the important documents, cash and jewels along. As I looked at each thing around which I have spent each day, my heart cried but the need for survival pushed my feet out as fast as possible. The moments created a lot of emotional turmoil, of course.
Question: Can you tell us more about the relief camp and the facilities that were available?
Answer: I have heard my grandmother once tell about her experience in relief camps back in 1962 which were truly disastrous. She said that they were jam-packed and there wasn’t enough space to even lie down properly. Contrary to her experience, the relief camp we stayed in was in good condition. The volunteers kept bringing many things for us. They even helped people with medicines and entertained children with toys and books.
Question: Any idea on how many relief camps were set up in Ernakulam alone?
Answer: I came to know from a navy officer that over 900 relief camps were set up in Ernakulam district.
Question: Can you brief about how the situation went on?
Answer: Thought a lot of people were rescued, a few went missing. As of August 18, 14 deaths were reported in Ernakulam. The dam levels kept rising posing continuous threat. The prime minister of India issued an urgent relief fund of Rs. 500 crore. The Water Authority Board opened 24 hours emergency water supply. The district borders between Thrissur and Ernakulam were washed off. The Ernakulam – Ankamaly Road was blocked.
Question: When did you get a sigh of relief from the Kerala floods?
Answer: On August 19th when the red alerts were withdrawn. The rainfall weakened from then on. Road and rail commutation resumed. Only then, I was hopeful that life could get back to normalcy soon.
Question: What do you think is the silver lining amidst the devastation?
Answer: Of course, the moments of heroism and the unrelenting spirit of resilience and compassion of Kerala in the face of this disaster seem to be the silver lining amid the devastation. Fishermen risked their lives into the troubled waters and played a truly decisive role in the rescue operations. Myriads of fishermen from far-away places reached the affected areas the moment they received the distress calls. Youngsters teamed up for voluntary rescue & relief works. Besides money and materials, even land was donated. The best part was, people from all walks of life joined together to face this situation.
Question: What do you think is the role of social media on the mission?
Answer: Well, social media platforms including WhatsApp and Facebook didn’t just stop with spreading awareness among people. They served as a crucial tool in helping the rescue teams and the government to reach the exact location, fetch information, know the ground reality and so on.
WhatsApp was used widely by stranded people to communicate their situation and locate the spot, which was highly helpful during the rescue state. Facebook was used to map lack of food, medicines and other essentials for relief purpose, helping the volunteers and NGOs to supply the materials promptly.
Affected people were easily tracked through social media tools. Fund raising was made easier and more effective. Above all, relief operations were made in a timely and more effective manner. Alerting authorities and the public about possible onset of calamity was made possible. There is no denying the fact that the effective use of social media saved many lives.
Question: How is life after floods?
Answer: Life has almost returned to normal. One aspect that indicates that life has returned to normal is the relief camps being closed. There were 970 camps set up in the district of Ernakulam of which only a handful are open. The people staying in these camps are the ones who have no place to go. Their houses are completely damaged.
Also, the waste management process is almost completed. 2220 houses were totally destroyed in the floods and 13000 houses were partially damaged. Compensations are being allotted for beneficiaries to rebuild their homes and lives. My life has almost returned to normal. Though we lost some furniture and appliances due to water logging, we have replaced the important things.
In general, there is a lot more to be done to bring Kerala to its original form. Ironically, after the floods, now the state seems to be undergoing a dry spell due to the scarcity of rains from the beginning of September. And, the ground water level is decreasing and the temperature has risen, especially in the southern part of the state. Due to floods, large-scale soil erosion has taken place, resulting in a decrease of groundwater levels and eventually water scarcity.
Question: What is the current situation in Kerala?
Answer: We see that Kerala has tried its best to recover from the floods that shook the state in August. 99% people have returned to their homes and only a few are living in the camps. Local self-organizations took up the job of cleaning houses. The government has taken all the necessary steps for the people to lead a normal life. Compensations are given on time so that people could bounce back to routine life.
The UN has issued a report that 31,000 crore rupees is needed for recovery and reconstruction. The UN has also promised to provide all kinds of assistance in helping Kerala rebuild itself.
Thought the flood caused serious destruction to lives and property, the determination and resolve Kerala showed in standing on its own feet and bouncing back is truly admirable.
Question: So, what is your take away from the experience?
Answer: As a common man, I have learned how nature turns life upside down. We have acquired important life lessons on prevention measures, disaster management, and what it is about living as a community. Valuable lessons learned amidst the chaos!