Kerala is yet to recover from the deluge described as “the worst since 1924”, and tens of thousands of the affected people are struggling to pick up the threads of their devastated lives.
Two spells of heavy rainfall during July-August killed around 500 and left several thousands homeless. Damage to property ran into crores of rupees; thousands of cattle and poultry were washed away and fish farms destroyed. Thirty-five of the 54 dams in the State had to be opened as they were filled to capacity; all the five overflow shutters of the Idukki dam were opened simultaneously, causing landslides in the hilly Wayanad and Idukki. Almost all the districts suffered heavy damage.
All schools, colleges, community halls and places of worship were transformed into relief camps and people kept pouring in by thousands. The affluent threw open their homes to accommodate people, and fed and clothed them too.
As Rotary India swung into action, helping in relief and planning rehabilitation, I made a two-day visit across the badly affected regions of Kuttanad, Kottayam, Kumarakom and Alleppey, with the help of D 3211 DG E K Luke, which brought me face-to-face with the agony of the people there. These places were just a sample of the extensive damage the floods have wreaked across the State.
Houses are broken or have been washed away. Some of them look tilted due to the soil erosion. Several hamlets are unapproachable by road and could be reached only by boats. Accompanied by Assistant Governors Saji Matthews and Jittu Sebastian, and Rtn Tina Antony, District Chief Coordinator for Flood Relief, as I sail over the backwaters in Kuttanad, the shores of which are lined with huts and concrete houses of various sizes and shapes, the irony of a bountiful nature, which has bestowed such lush greenery and beauty to the region, turning its fury on the State and its people, hits me hard.
And yet the most affected people greet us with a kindly smile and offer tender coconut water as we step into the devastated remains of their homes.
We pull up by the banks at the doorsteps of a forlorn-looking Shantha in one of the tiny hamlets that dot Kuttanad. She has just got back from a relief camp and shows us what remains of her home. The roof has vanished and in its place is a blue plastic sheet dotted with holes. Tin sheets make up the surrounding walls and there is no flooring left. Her paralysed husband is sleeping in a corner on a wooden cot, the legs of which are broken and is supported by hollow block bricks.
Seeing the Rotarians, her face lights up. Members from the Rotary clubs of Kottayam had rescued these villagers and are now engaged in rehabilitating them. “I was shocked to see my home, which I couldn’t even identify. The few vessels I had, were washed away,” she says tearfully.
While this was the state of the mud houses, the concrete houses had a different story. Television sets, mattresses and other home appliances were kept out to dry in the sun. As the water level increased the residents had moved to the first floor or the roof after rescuing household articles to the extent possible.
“Kuttanad, a reclaimed land from the Vembanad lake, is prone to flooding as it is 7–10 feet below sea level. People are used to the floods every monsoon, but this one took them unawares. The tide was high and there was so much water that the sea just couldn’t accept it, and pushed it right back on to the land,” explains Sebastian.
He says the water level rose up to nine feet in most place and boats had to be deployed to take people to safety. When the rain stopped and people started getting back to their homes, the Rotarians brought vessels and provisions, mattresses, blankets and clothes for the families at Kuttanad and elsewhere, to enable them to start their life all over again. This was the scenario all over the State with Rotarians pitching in with all possible help for the affected.
As we set sail again, Matthews shows me a vast waterbody behind the houses on the shore. “This is not a lake; it is acres of paddy fields that are still submerged in water.” The rains came soon after the people had sown the seeds and now everything is gone. The people around here are farmers owning about 2–5 acres of land. Fishing is another major occupation here. “Unfortunately, both activities were badly hit and several of them have not gone fishing as they have lost their fishing nets,” he says.
As we stop over at another house, it is startling to find 13-year-old Arathi jump into a boat and row it all by herself to cross over from the other side of the waters to her home. She is in her school uniform and as the bridge is broken and the roads inaccessible, this is the alternative mode of commute to school and back for many like her in the area.
The region is dotted with resorts and houseboats and “business has taken a beating first due to the Nipah virus and now the floods,” points out Tina. She says fishermen played a huge role in reaching out to homes inaccessible by road or air. “They are the real heroes. They came with their boats from various parts of the State for the rescue operations, braving the rain. As most of the houses have slanting roofs, and cables run criss-cross overhead, it was impossible for helicopters to rescue people in some places.”
At Alleppey, Vijayalaksmi Nair and Presidents Antony Malayil and Antony Fernandes of RCs Alleppey and Coir City take me to Chungam, an area with 610 houses, all badly damaged. The EDLP School in Pallathurty is a picture of despair. Computers are beyond repair. Soggy text and exercise books of the children and the teachers’ reference material are all being dried in the sun. “Please arrange for some computers for the schools,” pleads the school headmistress to Vijayalakshmi. She is the Contacting Officer of the District Relief Collection Centres and in charge of distributing the relief material received, to the various Rotary clubs in the district.
Rotary’s magic touch
When the rains lashed and relief camps were set up by the State, Rotarians in Districts 3211, 3201 and 3202, sprang into action. “Rotary was the first to come up with food packets, water bottles and dry clothes, as soon as people were evacuated to safety. We were everywhere,” says Tina.
There were people who were starving for days together, huddled up on the first floor or roofs of their buildings. “We carried food packets with us when we went to rescue people,” says Nisha Mani, a member of RC Pala and daughter of PDG John C Neroth. A trained life guard and a die hard social worker, she is a big hit with the communities around Kumarakom. She insists that I meet a ‘special friend’ as she takes me into a house where an excited Josimol Jose (30) greets her enthusiastically. The autistic woman confined to a wheelchair, and her aged mother, were rescued by Nisha and other Rotarians and moved to safety in a boat. “It was dusk and pouring. There was at least four-foot water all over. We half-waded, half-rowed the boats down into this lane to save around 100 people. The risk involved hit us only when we saw this lane in broad daylight,” she says. There is a broad canal by the road and the houses are built in a low-lying area. We leave Josimol’s house after Nisha thoughtfully hands over some adult diaper packets to the mother.
Adds Nisha, “Most of the houses have open sewers. But during the floods, none of us gave a thought to the filth around. Our focus was to save the trapped people.”
After the deluge
“Our real work began only after the rains,” says Tina. The biggest challenge was to clean the slush left behind by the receding waters. “We distributed tons and tons of bleaching powder, and helped to scrub the floors.” Each club adopted a ward of 1,000 houses and distributed kits containing cleaning material, buckets, mops, mugs, new clothes, bedsheets and other essential items. There was no power supply, so the Rotarians carried gensets.
At Alleppey DG Luke invites me to participate in a distribution programme where RC Trivandrum Central gave out kits containing a wooden desk, plastic chairs, mop, buckets, broom, a gas stove, vessels etc to the people.
Borders thinned and Rotarians came together from all parts of the district, across the country and the globe to provide help for the flood victims. The coordination between clubs was so perfect that they called each other and rushed things to places where there was shortage. Truckloads of goods came in from various clubs. “RC Nanganallur in Chennai not only sent truckload of goods, three Rotarians came along to Alleppey to provide moral support.” Mannar was badly affected by the Pampa River and the houses of 13 Rotarians of RC Mannar were damaged. “Despite that they were on the ground extending help for the others,” says Tina.
“The Anns and Annets also got involved in the relief work,” says Susann Koshy of RC Kottayam referring to Dr Rebecca Philipose (21), daughter of club member Dr Philipose. This club is doing extensive work around Kottayam.
Medical camps are being organised by the clubs in various areas to treat people for skin infection, fever, cold, and check spread of epidemics. A psychiatrist was also part of some of the teams to treat people suffering from depression, an aftermath of the devastation.
The ’Dil-se Act for Kerala’ is one of the first housing projects being implemented under a global grant by RC Cochin Midtown and Rotary Bandar Sg Petani, D 3300, Malaysia, to provide houses for the homeless. RIDE Kamal Sanghvi led a shelter kit project, along with the DGEs of various districts, whereby 1,000 kits were provided in various parts of the State, under the Rotary India Humanity Foundation. Each kit contains a tent, some utensils and clothes for a family of four.
Project Hope is a joint initiative of the Rotary clubs of UK and Kerala, through which D 1120 provided water filters for schools in the State, while D 1220 sent 500 household and community filters. RC Kalamaserry, along with RC Kandy, D 3220, Sri Lanka, is helping small entrepreneurs restart their lives through a global grant. A mattress manufacturer was given an industrial sewing machine, an autorickshaw driver got a new vehicle and a saree-seller got fresh stock of sarees. While the Rotarians of RC Cochin Milan is donating utensils, RC Cochin Cosmos is focusing on providing wheelchairs, walkers, artificial limbs, hearing aids and waterbeds for the differently-abled.
RC Coimbatore Sai City, D 3201, sent a truckload of groceries worth ₹30 lakh. Katrina Langrova, a youth exchange student from the Czech Republic hosted by RC Coimbatore Cosmopolitan, inspired by the spontaneity of the Rotarians, contributed her stipend for the flood relief, says DG A V Pathy. Fundraisers are being organised in various districts across the country and abroad, and contributions keep coming in for relief work. Rotaractors and Interactors are also playing their part.
The Rehab challenge
Earlier PRIP Kalyan Banerjee toured the flood affected regions of Alleppey and Kuttanad accompanied by DG Luke. Banerjee, along with Director C Basker, later met the governors of Districts 3211, 3201 and 3202 — E K Luke, A V Pathy and E K Ummer — and suggested that a Trust be formed to receive funds for the extensive rehabilitation work. It will be jointly managed by the three governors. “The Trust has been registered and whatever funds the districts have received so far will go into it. A budget of ₹100 crore has been earmarked for rehabilitation work in all the three districts. PRIP Banerjee has said that the districts can apply for global grant for construction of 3,000 low-cost shelters, each around 300 sq ft,” said Luke.
“We have identified few places like Kuttanad where there is an urgent need for homes. Thankfully, most of the villagers do hold a valid title deed to the land,” says Tina. “We will build a Rotary village by concentrating the homes together in one area so that it can also make a visible impact,” says Luke.
Mission New Life
It was PDG Reghunath who came up with this concept at Thiruvananthapuram. People everywhere have lost their home appliances, mattresses and furniture. So to help them equip their homes, Mission New Life was designed, “where we refurbish used furniture/appliances donated by people and provide them for the needy. We have in place a whole team of carpenters, electricians and other technicians across the districts. They will repair the goods and make them fit for reuse,” says Tina, adding that the clubs were planning to organise a roadshow the following day to popularise the concept in Alleppey.
Stanley, a premier furniture manufacturer, is donating a large quantity of furniture for Mission New Life, says M C Jacob of RC Trivandrum.
Nisha regaled me with some of the lighter moments which at that point of time were lost under the gravity of the situation. She was on a boat in one of the areas in Kuttanad and as she put out her hand to help a man climb in, he just thrust a goat into her hand, asking her to save the goat and hand it over to his wife who was “in some camp.” After much persuasion, the man climbed on to the boat, but not before ensuring that his goat came with him. “In the process, the animal peed all over my face, making my friends comment that it makes a good facial!”
On another occasion she spotted a little boy in a camp holding a viper. She took it from him and put it into one of the baskets she was carrying and quietly kept it on the gearbox of her car, without informing her friends who were travelling with her. “I kept sliding glances into the basket to see if the fellow was intact.” After dropping off her friends, she took the reptile to a forest officer to be let out into the forests. “He was so irritated with me. Why did you bring him to me? Now he is my responsibility, he kept whimpering. And after some cajoling I entrusted the snake to him, and also managed to get a signed receipt!”
Brimming with stories of loss, heroism and love, the region is a microcosm of humanity in times of peril. Each one has a story to relate and as much as the devastations, the compassion and empathy of the Good Samaritans will also be etched in people’s memory forever. As Susann remarks, “They all have put their heart and soul so selflessly for humanity.”
Pictures by Jaishree