On August 17, I woke up to the noise of rain battering the roof of my home in Pattanakad, a small village along the highway to Ernakulam in Kerala’s Alappuzha district. My state was drowning in the worst floods for a century. The deluge had not reached our village yet but we knew it was only a matter of time. So, while there still was, my cousin and I decided to help with the relief and rescue work. A couple of college students who had never seen a disaster quite like this, we thought we would create a database to assess the needs of each camp, set up in schools across the district, and direct supply trucks accordingly.

We collected some clothes for the affected people and headed to the Government Girls Higher Secondary School at Chungam that sheltered people from Thiruvalla town in neighbouring Pathanamthitta district. Nearly 500 people from 120 families were already staying in the camp, said its manager. They had essential supplies to last about four days, but were running short of blankets. In the school’s auditorium, a health camp was in progress. The mood around the room was sombre – but hopeful. A volunteer doctor said they had seen 84 patients with ailments such as hypertension, arthritis, fever, cough.

Our next stop was the SDV Boys School camp at Kidanjamparambu which had been functioning for only about four hours when we arrived but was running efficiently. This camp too was stocked with provisions such as food and water, provided by local philanthropies, but again lacked enough blankets. It housed over 100 families. Staff from the local hospital running a health camp at the school said they were well stocked with essential medicines.

A doctor volunteering at the relief camp in the Government Girls Higher Secondary School said they had seen 84 patients with ailments such as hypertension, arthritis, fever, cough. Photo credit: Archana Madhav

Jayanthi, 33, was patiently awaiting her turn to see a doctor at the health camp. She was home at Chempumpuram, Kuttanad, with her 2-year-old daughter and disabled father – her husband works abroad – when it was suddenly flooded. She said she was lucky to get her child and father out of harm’s way. But Jayanthi was worried the water would have damaged her home and ruined everything in it. She was hopeful, though, that the state government would help her rebuild her life. She was pleased with all the support they were receiving at the camp, considering the trying circumstances.

At the SDV Higher Secondary School, located right behind the Boys School, the camp was organised even better. It sheltered around 300 families, and its medical camp offered not only the regular allopathic treatment but also alternative forms of care such as homeopathy and ayurveda. A public health officer overseeing the camp said headaches, depression and gastrointestinal infections, all largely induced by stress, were the most common ailments among the inmates.

Volunteers help people off a houseboat at the jetty. Photo credit: Archana Madhav

Order amid chaos

Just as we were speaking to the health officer, we were contacted by a private merchandise supplier with four truckfuls of relief material ready to be delivered. Since the camp was well stocked, we directed him to the government warehouse near Alleppey jetty. The 10,000 sq ft warehouse, managed by the local panchayat and volunteers, is the central relief distribution facility for camps in Alleppey town, supplying rice, vegetables, water, clothes and blankets.

The Alleppey canal had breached its banks, and we waded through knee-deep water to reach the warehouse. This is where I truly realised the scale of the mammoth relief and rescue work underway, and the profound humanity driving it. A steady stream of people forced from their homes landed at the jetty in all kinds of boats, from small speedboats to double-decker houseboats (the Kerala government had called the tourist houseboats to assist with evacuations) all filled to the brim. A local youth organisation had been given the task of helping the people off the boats and into the Kerala State Roadways buses waiting to transfer them to the nearest available camps. In an hour, I saw six buses transport around 800 people. The efficiency with which all this work was being carried out was exceptional.

The jetty warehouse is the central relief distribution facility for camps in Alleppey town. Photo credit: Archana Madhav

The Alleppey jetty warehouse, as apparently many others across Kerala, had started stocking up on essential supplies at the first indication of a bad monsoon on July 28. The pre-emptive action proved critical in the relief work.

As a Malayalee, I have often heard that the Keralites care more about their “rights” than “responsibilities”. This week, however, I saw how they came together – across class, religious and cultural divides – to help each other through this great calamity.

Now, when the losses are counted and the process of rebuilding starts, this sense of brotherhood offers us hope that we will get through these dark days and come out in a better tomorrow. It will certainly be a long road to recovery, but we will take it together. And together, as the past few weeks have shown, the Keralites are a strong, resilient lot.

The writer of this article with rescue workers.

Archana Madhav is a second-year graduate student at Brunel University, London.