A flood of heroes

Print edition :

Residents of a housing colony near Kampanipady in Kalamassery in Ernakulam district being rescued by fishermen on August 18. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Fishing boats glided through flooded roads day and night, to destinations the boatmen never knew, and their fellows followed, neck-deep in water, searching for survivors in half-submerged homes.

Others combed lonely, silent lanes in dinghies and lifeboats, raising shrill, piercing cries of “Koooi!”, “Hooyi!”,”Is there anybody here?” — sounds which were music to the ears of desperate victims anxiously eyeing rising water levels from terraces or behind shut doors.

Elsewhere, scenes were reminiscent of the flow of refugees from conflict zones: long lines of ashen, haggard, worried and tense men and women, old and young, toddlers and pregnant women, wading through the floodwaters on bridges and roads. They were on “safe” terrain because their rescuers had struggled to measure up to the pitiless flow of floodwaters over walls, gates, roofs and abandoned vehicles, through nooks and crannies of urban jungles and reclaimed villages, or over sodden cliffsides threatening to tumble down.

Rescuers reached out to the thousands who were trapped or stranded across Kerala, with their lifebuoys and guiding ropes, as the skies opened up and the floodwaters rose and refused to recede for days.

Hundreds of Army, Navy and Air Force and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel were deployed, to work with the State Police and Fire Force to help those marooned in congested urban areas and in remote and hilly districts. Helicopters rescued stranded victims and dropped tonnes of food, water and medicines over entire localities cut off by endangered roads and bridges. Earthmovers, huge trucks, buses and houseboats were offered for service or were commandeered by district administrations. Hundreds of refugee camps were opened quickly, and a massive voluntary effort came into operation.

Fisherfolk from all parts of Kerala came in uninvited in large numbers and with their own boats, to save victims from the brink of death or desperation, cutting through raging floods of the Periyar and the Pampa.

“All sections of society took part in the rescue and relief effort, but the participation of one section will stand out in our minds. The fisherfolk who battle with the sea for a living. Thousands of them had come ready as volunteers from hamlets all along Kerala’s coast, from Vizhinjam to Munambam. They had come in groups of four or five, transporting their boats here on vehicles and spending money from their own pockets. They had no fear. The currents in the river or the weather—nothing mattered to them,” T.M. Thomas Isaac, State Finance Minister and MLA from Alappuzha district, said about the amazing rescue effort launched by fisherfolk, especially in Chengannur, one of the worst-affected areas.

After the stunning initial hours, as the scale of the calamity struck Kerala, impromptu volunteers sprung up everywhere, bringing relief to the stretched official machinery.

There were myriad stories of bravery, selflessness, heroism and compassion: of a pregnant woman airlifted from her flooded home giving birth on arrival in a Navy hospital; of a fisherman going down on all fours for people to get into his rescue boat; of an Air Force officer braving extreme odds to land a chopper on the roof of a house to help an old woman to safety; of NDRF men helping stranded women and children cross a rocky path across a fast-flowing river where just an hour earlier a landslide had claimed a bridge; of entire families staying back because an aged parent could not risk being winched up onto a precariously low flying helicopter; of an MLA breaking down, helpless before the plight of hundreds trapped without food or water in his constituency.

As voluntary agencies, neighbourhood clubs, health workers, social media groups, youth organisations, students and media organisations joined hands, Kerala could bridle what would have been a calamity of unimaginable proportions within the shortest possible time.

An amazing voluntary and mostly crowdsourced relief effort was launched simultaneously, and district administrations were overwhelmed by the relief materials that poured into special camps and the enthusiastic participation of Kerala’s youth and students in running it.

Thiruvananthapuram, one of the least affected districts and with a fully functional airport, became a key hub for the relief effort. Its young District Collector, K. Vasuki, told a gathering of passionate volunteers working feverishly inside a huge school auditorium full of neatly packed relief materials, including food, water, medicines, clothing and blankets: “Do you know what you are doing here? You are creating history.”

With the Cochin International Airport flooded and closed indefinitely, the airport in Thiruvananthapuram was in battle readiness throughout the crisis period, with planes and choppers taking off every other minute. About 400 volunteers helped load tonnes of material for the flood victims in other districts every day and the army flew numerous sorties over affected areas,

In Kozhikode, Collector U.V. Jose told the media that the relief camps were run entirely with crowdsourced materials.

Leading the efforts was a hands-on Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who set aside a journey to the U.S. for medical treatment, and, along with his Cabinet colleagues and officials, coordinated the rescue and relief efforts and gave support and confidence to those on the front line. Holidays were cancelled and the government machinery moved as a disciplined force. There were innumerable stories that made total dedication and selfless service commonplace. The death toll was limited only because relief camps could be opened quickly at all crucial locations.

The role of vibrant Malayalam television channels and social media groups in bringing the ground-level realities to light minute by minute, in locating thousands of flood and landslide victims, and in helping reach food, water and essential life-saving materials to them, was exemplary.

Messenger groups, much derided for spreading fake news and “hartal mischief” not long ago in the State, proved to be lifelines for the victims themselves and their rescuers. As floodwaters rushed into buildings, there were a million messages flying back and forth. Videos went viral.

A man pleaded, with several anxious eyes above water all around him: “Somebody please save us. Please. We will all die soon.” Others said: “About 500 students of the Sri Sankara Hostel are still trapped there. Please share this message”; “Here, in this location I have shared, my family members and many others are unable to step out of our house. The water level is rising by the minute. If somebody can provide a boat, please help.”

Saji Cherian, the MLA from Chengannur who had been elected just a few months earlier, wrote anxiously on his Facebook page: “Please give us a helicopter. We will fall at your feet. Please help us. My people here will all die. Help, please. Airlift is the only option here. We are doing our best with fishing boats brought here with political influence. We are helpless here. We need the Army here. Or we will die. Help us!”

There were countless messages like this and rescuers were stunned by the sheer number of distress calls.

By August 20, when the floods started receding at many places and there was a let up in the rains, 370 people had died but nearly 12.5 lakh people were rescued—82,442 of them on August 17; 58,000 on August 18; 22,034 on August 19; and 602 persons on August 10—and brought to 3,274 camps.

If Kerala was rattled by the unforeseen devastation wrought by the rains, landslips and the deluge of dam waters, it soon recovered and joined hands for a historic rescue and relief effort.

The story of “this century’s flood” is also a story of a flood of heroes and very few villains.

 

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