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India-Disaster-Kerala
Reuters/Sivaram V
Distressed and desperate.
HELLISH HOURS

Trapped for days, a young mother recalls her escape from the Kerala floods

By Kamalika Ghosh

“The floods had started earlier. On Independence day (Aug. 15) there were landslides near the Sabarimala area. From there the water came to ours. Actually, in our area, it’s not the rain or the dam water, it is the landslides that affected us.”

This is what a young mother, still reeling under the shock of the devastating floods in Kerala, had to say a day after being moved to safety. Her two-month-old is still unable to adjust to the new surroundings.

But still, after days of ordeal, she is safe at her relatives’ home in the Kozhencherry locality of southern Kerala’s Pathanamthitta, one of the worst-hit among its 14 districts.

Many others haven’t been as lucky. Around 350 have died and hundreds of thousands—the elderly, children, the incapacitated, young mothers—are uprooted, not knowing when will the return home.

Speaking to Quartz on Sunday (Aug. 19), the English-language teacher narrated her harrowing tale. She, along with her parents, lives upstairs in a two-storeyed house whose lower floor was completely flooded. Her husband, who works for a condiments company around 150 kilometres northeast in Idukki district, could not be contacted.

It had been raining incessantly since the beginning of August, a little unusual for the state that in a normal year would be preparing for its biggest festival, Onam, around this time. By the end of the first week, reports of massive flooding began to appear. On Aug. 09, the first red alert was issued considering the seriousness of the disaster. Less than a week on, all 14 districts of the state were on red alert.

“There were a lot of boats, there were a lot of people who were plying boats around this area and they came and took our neighbours to the distress camps,” she said. Since nobody expected the waters to rise any further, it wasn’t seen as necessary to move out those living on higher floors. Besides, there was no way her family itself could know of the gravity of the situation beyond its own neighbourhood as there had been no power for days.

“We were totally isolated. We were living on the floor upstairs. Out of the 17 steps that the building has, eight steps were flooded with water,” she said. “Other people were calling us and telling us that…they gave the rescue teams our locations and all that, but by the next day, the water even began receding. So they (rescue teams) asked ‘now what’s the problem?’ So nobody came,” the harrowed teacher said.

In the meantime, relatives were frantically dialing government helplines unsuccessfully.

Her brother, who lives in Mumbai, was desperately trying to get in touch with them. He was sending out SOSes on Twitter, tagging senior disaster management officials, media houses, and even the state chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. He saw the horror unfolding in Kerala on television news and social media, but was helpless.

The family was now worried about the baby’s well-being. “His sleeping patterns were getting upset. All this…had taken a toll on him. His body is unable to understand what’s going on,” she said. They were quickly running short of supplies of food and other essentials that would last only a day more at the most.

By Friday (Aug. 17), though, there was some relief as water levels began to come down. The next day, some relatives living in the less-affected parts of Kozhencherry finally arrived to take the entire family away.

“I am living at my sister-in-law’s place now and I am making the call from her phone, which is the only one that has charge,” the teacher said. Five straight days without power meant that all electronic gadgets have run out of charge. So the family keeps one phone partly charged, drawing power from the relatives’ car. Connectivity is still poor, though, and this conversation had to be made over multiple calls as they get disconnected frequently.

Her family learnt later that matters were far worse in areas beyond the neighbourhood. “People who were completely stuck in flooded surroundings…helicopters came and rescued them,” the teacher said.

The armed forces and the state government agencies have been working on a war-footing, she heard.

A local chapel in Kozhencherry has been feeding the entire neighbourhood, she said. “All the people, irrespective of their religion, are eating the food cooked in the chapel. The distress camps are also chipping in,” the teacher said.

On Sunday for the first time since Aug. 09, there was no red alert issued for any of Kerala’s rain-ravaged 14 districts.

In Kozhencherry too, things are a bit better now, the teacher said. “Water has receded in most areas and rains have held up. And I am just waiting to go back home now.”