On Sunday, the day after floodwaters receded from Chalakudy in Central Kerala’s Thrissur district, anxious residents took a stock of the situation. They were horrified by what they saw.
Thick layers of mud carpeted the floors of homes. Compound walls of houses had collapsed. Trees had been uprooted. Vehicles washed away by the flood water lay scattered on the streets. The stench of the dead rats, rabbits, dogs and cattle filled the air. There was no power supply since hundreds of electric poles have been uprooted. Water in wells had turned muddy and became unusable.
Chalakudy, like many parts of Kerala, had been underwater for three days. The flood killed at least four people in the town. Across Kerala, the total number of rain-related deaths since May 29 rose to 357 on Sunday.
For Chalakudy’s residents, the disaster began to unfold on August 15, after days of incessant rain – three times more than the average for this time of the year – caused levels in three reservoirs upstream to swell. When the gates of these reservoirs were opened, the Chalakkudy river breached its banks. The strong currents washed away almost everything in their path.
Autorickshaw driver Sajan Kattuparambil said when the water began to submerge his home, he put his Aadhaar card in his pocket. “I thought I would die soon and the Aadhaar card would help people identify my body,” he explained.
As water levels in the town rose as high as 10 feet, residents clambered for refuge in multi-storey buildings and houses. Many of them stayed there for two days without food and water before being rescued by fishermen from Nattika 40 km away and the Indian Navy. Eventually, about 5,000 of the town’s 49,525 needed to be rescued. Many were taken to hospital or to government-run shelters.
“I was shaken to core when I saw the rising water level,” said 55-year-old TJ Paulson. “How can I forget those scenes?”
On Sunday, in the midst of the shock, there were also tales of bravery and selflessness. For instance, when the calamity struck, TP Manoj braved heavy odds to help rescue more than 40 people by escorting fishermen to their homes. “I just did what I could do for society,” Manoj said modestly. “The fishermen from Nattika did all the job.”
Manoj also helped evacuate more than 150 patients from the Government Taluk Hospital after water submerged its first floor. “We brought boats to the hospital over its gates and took patients one by one,” said Manoj. “I was shocked when a staff nurse put a two-hour-old baby into my arms. I didn’t know what to do. I took utmost care to take the baby to the boat and transfer her to the ambulance.”
It was only much later that he set himself to the task of rescuing his own mother and an uncle.
Also pitching in with rescue work was ambulance driver Amal Raj, 22, who drove hundreds of people to nearby hospitals free of cost. “I didn’t sleep for three days from August 15,” he said.
Others weren’t so fortunate. On Sunday, advocate Vivian Simethy said that when the flood water began to rise on Wednesday, he took his ailing father, Anto Simethy, to the second flood of their home. But the next evening, Simethy Senior, 82, showed symptoms of uneasiness.
“By that time, flood water had submerged the entire first floor of our house,” Vivian Simethy said. “I could not go out and inform my relatives. I just called out loudly and told them that our dad breathed his last. We were in tears. They could not come to help us.”
He wrapped his father’s body in whatever clothes he could find and placed him on a bed. “I waited for the boats to take his body to the church,” Simethy said. “As we waited, water began to rise. We struggled to keep his body above water.”
A rescue boat only arrived on Friday. Simethy Senior will now be cremated on August 22.
The flood has broken the back of Chalakudy’s economy. The huge municipal market, which used to host more than 500 vegetable and provision stores, has been completely destroyed. On Sunday, merchants across town could be seen cleaning their shops and counting up their losses.
“All the pulses and grains kept inside my shop have been destroyed. I lost goods worth more than Rs five lakh,” said provision store owner Jose Joseph. He hoped that insurance companies would compensate for his losses.
But the real losers will be the unorganised street vendors, who do not have insurance coverage.
In anticipation of the Onam season now underway, sellers of earthenware goods had brought significant stocks from factories. They said that 80% of the goods had been washed away in the floods.
“I pawned my jewellery to bring mud cooking pots worth Rs 150,000 as we used to get good business during Onam,” lamented a street vendor named Kamala. “But floods washed all my hopes away. What will I do now?”
Autorickshaw driver Kattuparambil said that the Chalakudy river had punished people for their reckless acts, such as thoughtless land reclamation. “We have reclaimed land and blocked Chalakkudy river at many places,” he said. “This was a disaster waiting to happen.”