First Person Account

When the river came home

Print edition : September 14, 2018

In some places the roads were narrow for the boats to go; in other places the boat could not be turned around and had to move in reverse gear. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Volunteers rescue people at Aluva on August 17. Photo: H. Vibhu

Two boats were employed in rescue operations. The team consisted of 14 fishermen and a truck driver, who was ready to ferry the boats in his truck from Thiruvananthapuram. Photo: By Special Arrangement

How a few young men and a crew of fishermen rescued people stranded in their homes in Aluva.

On August 15, soon after the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech, we heard the news that the Periyar was in flood and that people were being moved to rescue camps. On behalf of our bank, we gathered relief material, put them in a car and drove to a collection centre run by the volunteer group Anbodu Kochi and the Ernakulam district administration.

The scene there was heartening: there were hundreds of youngsters, film actors and officials and NGOs. Packages kept pouring in from people across the State.

Soon we realised that our colleagues and friends too were stranded at many places in and around Aluva. The road to our office was flooded, and the Metro was moving at a snail’s pace. Some colleagues had not left office the previous day. Many roads were already under three to eight feet of water. We needed boats to rescue our colleagues, but the local administration had its hands full and could do little to help.

We were already getting desperate calls from our colleagues. As we waited to launch a rescue effort we created two WhatsApp groups: one for people who were trapped and those who were ready to help; another for a group of decision-makers and bank authorities.

We tried to use a small boat, but the boatman withdrew because the current was too strong. All the while the water was rising steadily in the Periyar and there was no let-up in the rain.

We continued making frantic calls and managed to connect with Hari, an IT professional and a friend, who was already on his way to Aluva from Bengaluru via Thiruvananthapuram after hearing the news of the flood. With the help of a parish priest and others, he found three boats and the crew to run it—14 fishermen led by Robin—and a truck driver, Gopan, who was ready to ferry the boats in his truck from Thiruvananthapuram.

People kept stopping the truck because boats were in demand in other districts too. On the way they dropped one boat at Arattuppuzha (Pathanamthitta district), for another team of volunteers.

The bank authorities promised us all help and authorised our rescue effort. But we still needed to obtain a direction from the Superintendent of Police. More than a hundred of our colleagues were stuck in various parts of the town. We began our search on August 18, at 5.50 a.m. in two boats in dim light. We yelled and whistled and called out “is there anyone here?” We got our first response from an apartment complex near the Aluva Manappuram temple, which was submerged. There were around 30 people stranded in the complex for three days.

They were on the first floor, and Hari reached the balcony on that floor by climbing on to a tin-sheeted structure with the help of two crew members. There were many people there, elders in their eighties and nineties and infants, too.

The first task was to convince them that all of them, including a 95-year-old man, could be helped to climb down safely to the boat along the tin roof. One by one each of them was moved to the boat.

As we went back to Thottakkattukara junction, and safety, people were there in large numbers to help those we had rescued and to take them to the Aluva Metro station. The other boat had moved in the direction of Harmony Apartments. It took a long time to reach there because we had to take detours as people, total strangers too, needed help. The boat was big, the roads were narrow.

A colleague waved at us from a building hearing our shouts. Jithesh jumped into the water impulsively. The water was neck deep and muddy. The gate was locked. He had to climb the wall and jump into the compound. Peter and Benedict, crew members, followed him. There were people even on the tenth floor. Many were scared to move out. They only wanted food. We gave them bread, biscuits and water bottles. An aged woman had to be carried to the boat. The floors were slippery. There were steps. Jithesh found that his grip was uncertain as he carried her. He was also struggling to breathe. Everywhere people were reluctant to move out. We tried telling them of the consequences of staying there. At some places, it took nearly 45 minutes to rescue, say, eight people.

As the boat moved forward, an elderly man, Kabeer, gestured to us. He wanted food for two. He preferred to stay back as his mother was 84 and he did not know what to do. We persuaded Kabeer to come down and open the door. The scene inside was startling. The refrigerator, chairs, sofas and household appliances were floating around. The team went in and shifted his mother to the boat in a plastic chair and then went back for Kabeer.

There was another problem. The boat could not be turned around. In such places we drove in reverse gear. Fumes would come out of the engine. But the crew assured the passengers that there was nothing to worry about. We got used to it soon. At the end of every trip, people welcomed the boat and the people in it with shouts of joy, even as they helped them out of the boat.

We had a long list of our bank colleagues in mind when we started a fresh rescue trip. But we found others in equal need. In one such instance, the S.P. asked us to help an elderly man save his relatives who were trapped in an inaccessible area. When we finally located the place, we had to jump into the flood water and walk to the house. The door was locked and snails and centipedes were crawling all over it. The elderly man who opened the door was quite agitated. His wife seemed convinced that they would drown. Both were shaken on seeing the furniture and valuables floating around in the first floor. But we were determined to save them. That helped, perhaps.

Rising waters

We had to hurry. The water level was rising. A colleague lived nearby. There were 10 or 12 people in her flat. They too did not want to take the boat. But the situation was getting worse. Getting on the boat would be prudent, we told them. If more water was released from Idukki dam, they would be in serious trouble. If the water did not recede quickly, no boat would come their way. Food and drinking water would become a problem then. If the water level came down, they could come back home any time. Finally, they changed their mind.

There were dogs on the third floor. We gave them water and food. A lonely dog elsewhere in the building had a forlorn look, his eyes pleading with us to take him with us. But we thought he was safer left in the flat or he would become an orphan once on the street. We gave him bread and left.

One of us, Suresh, stayed back at the starting point to coordinate the logistics, including arranging fuel and foodstuff whenever the boats went back. He would keep everything ready for our umpteen trips, coordinate with the police and other authorities to arrange ambulances or helicopters or, at times, go with a rented truck to move our colleagues and their families to safe places.

Our list kept on increasing. Strangers and friends would run to us, with their own list of marooned relatives. It was backbreaking work and the crew was hungry and tired. The team had been working since early morning and was hungry. People offered us food.

Three of us, Suresh, Jitesh and Hari, had lost our appetite as we knew that the most difficult part was yet to come and that a lot of people were waiting anxiously for rescue in areas that even boats would find difficult to reach. For instance, rescuers could not go to the Pragathy Gardens area by boat. Navy helicopters had picked up five people from that area earlier. And Federal Village was the remotest of all places on the list. It was the riskiest part of the venture. Suresh and other friends who knew about it were worried for our safety. We could not wait, though.

We asked Suresh to try for a helicopter rescue there; if the pick-up did not happen before three in the evening, we would have to undertake the mission. While we waited, we decided to rescue people from other locations.

There were nearly a hundred people waiting for our boat at Harmony, another apartment complex. Two youngsters came forward to support the team in bringing people from inside while a group of women were in the balcony organising the evacuation. We decided to give preference to the aged and families with kids. There were people with kidney ailment and on life support, old women with broken legs. We had to ask some of them to wait for the next trip. But the water level was receding, and we knew it may become difficult for the big boat to come back again.

We went back and picked up the critically ill person, and a police boat passing by took some of the others already in our boat. We came back with much difficulty as the water level was too low for the boat to move safely. We told all those who remained there that we would send a smaller boat to take them.

Messages kept coming that a group of our colleagues was stranded in Federal Villa and nearby areas of Kadungalloor, quite an interior location close to the Periyar. All efforts, even choppers, to rescue them had failed. Jithesh and Hari decided we had to go. The current was heavy and there was the serious threat of snake and centipede bites and other dangers in the floodwaters. The crew was reluctant to take us and was very worried about the boats. Damage to the boats meant they would lose their livelihood. We offered to repair the boats if something happened. Finally, the crew agreed to come one more time. We knew it would take at least two trips. But we were afraid to argue with the crew.

When the boat reached Pragathy Gardens, the crew swore it would be the last trip since it was difficult to navigate a fishing boat through the small passages. We asked the crew to turn the boat into the complex. The flow was such that it was impossible to do so. The whole team got out of the boat and turned it around. But it was difficult to steer the boat to the villas inside where some were trapped. The current was really strong and we could not see the road and where people were staying. We rescued several people, sometimes carrying old people ourselves.

When it was time to leave we told the crew we would stay back as the boat was already full. Thus, we made them come back one more time. But the Periyar was quite agitated on that stretch. The crew of smaller boats that passed by were finding it difficult to control the vessels. A while after we started back, our boat began to drift to the right and the entire crew had to get out to push it back to safety. It was impossible to steer the boat using the engines. The only way was to push it all the way to Federal Village. To cut a long day short, when we finally reached Federal Village, the mighty Periyar was flowing majestically out through the villa complex gates. We rescued at least a 100 more people, including all our stranded colleagues, from there and elsewhere that day.

Finally, we had to move to a locality where the roads were only as wide as the boat. The passage was more difficult because of cables and damaged walls. The vessel suffered serious body damage. Still, after about 30 minutes of risky journey, we picked up 13 more people from the roof of an old, two-storeyed building. It was 6.30 p.m. and getting dark. We realised we had left out two of our colleagues. So we went back for them, this time in a smaller boat.

As told to R. Krishnakumar

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