Pointing to her partially submerged home from a distance, TK Ajitha of Chalakka village in Kerala’s Ernakulam wondered when she would be able to step into it again.

“It is my sweat and blood,” she said. “It has been six days since we left our home. I do not know when I can go back.”

Severe flooding this month has killed over 350 people in Kerala and rendered lakhs homeless. Ernakulam in Central Kerala is among the worst-affected districts, seeing an estimated 1,41,702 men, 1,44,983 women and 75,010 children from 95,398 homes displaced. They have taken shelter in 760 relief camps, the district collector said in a statement on Monday. “All the stranded people have been rescued,” the statement added. “Now we will concentrate on the running of the relief camps.”

Ernakulam flooded after the shutters of Idukki and Mullperiyar dams were opened on August 10. The excess water was released into the Periyar river, which breached its banks on August 15, inundating all the low-lying areas.

The floods have devastated Perumbavoor and Aluva towns and nearby villages. Train and road traffic were disrupted for several days, the residents said. In villages such as Chalakka in Kunnukara gram panchayat, sandwiched between the Periyar and the Chalakudy rivers, hundreds of houses remain under water, hampering relief work.

Ajitha is staying in a relief camp at the nearby Sree Narayana Institute of Medical Sciences, along with around 500 people. There is water all around the place but it is of no use to the people in the camp. “We are facing scarcity of clean water,” she said. “I haven’t taken a bath for seven days.”

The majority of the people in Kunnukara depend on agriculture for a living. They grow paddy, banana and vegetables and sell the produce at the Aluva town market, about 15 km away. “Most of the people are subsistence farmers and poor,” said MK Sudhakaran, a local social worker. “Flooding has broken their back.”

The people believe the government made a mistake by releasing water from the Idukki dam only when it was about to breach. “Controlled release of water at the peak of monsoon would have saved our place from floods,” argued TS Linod, 20, a welder.

When the floodwaters began to rise, people from across Kunnukara took shelter at the medical college. “We stood on the fourth floor and watched floodwaters engulf our homes,” said Vishnu, 24, an autorickshaw driver.

Being in a remote area, the camp did not get food or water for the first three days. “I thought many children would die here,” said Ambili, one of people still at the camp. “Luckily we survived until the first batch of relief materials reached on August 18.”

Now, they have enough provisions for a week. “We take turns to cook food three times a day,” Ambili said.

The floods did not spare the Sree Narayana Institute of Medical Sciences, the tallest building in the area, either. The medical college claims to have suffered losses worth crores of rupees as the deluge destroyed expensive equipment. The hospital’s first floor was completely submerged, so over 150 patients and about 300 students were shifted to other hospitals in the district with the help of local people and the Indian Navy. They were brought out in boats and transferred to ambulances some distance away.

On Monday, the hospital discharged its last in-patient, Varghese, who was being treated for a spinal injury. “We kept him at the hospital for five days because he needed an ambulance to go home,” said Dr Prasad Krishnan, who treated him.

Tragedy upon a tragedy

Kuthiyathode village in Kunnukara is mourning the death of six residents crushed when a part of the parish hall of St Xavier’s Church collapsed on August 16. Nearly 200 people had taken shelter in the church when the floodwaters started to rise on the morning of August 15. By the evening, they had no option but to seek refuge in the second floor of the parish hall next to the church as the floodwaters kept rising. They feared the single-storeyed church was not high enough to keep them dry.

At around 7 the next evening, a part of the hall came crashing down. By Sunday, bodies of six victims were recovered from under the debris. While the bodies of Ambattuparambil Shouri, 60, and Pankkal James, 50, were recovered on Saturday, those of Ilanjikkal Pappachan, 97, his son Ilanjikkal Jomon, 50, Madavana James, 50, and Panikulam Joseph, 60, were found on Sunday.

“The bodies have been kept at the medical college in Kalamassery,” said Vargehese Palatty Senior, the vicar of the church. “They will be buried at St Xavier’s Church on Tuesday.”

The villagers do not know how many bodies “remain under the debris”, the vicar added.

He said the parish hall was built 100 years ago. “It was a weak structure,” he added. “It collapsed when over 200 people entered the building. It could not withstand that much load.”

Mathew K Thachil, who lives near the church, said the villagers ran for their lives when floodwaters started to rise. “A community hall near the church was already jam-packed with over 300 people,” he added. “The only other two-storeyed structure available was the parish hall. So, people rushed there. But their weight was beyond its capacity. The entire village is in a state of shock.”

The villagers could not even rush to the rescue of their trapped brethren because of bad weather conditions and the water level. “Water rose to eight feet,” said Sunny, a resident. “There was no electricity or mobile connectivity. We just stood in shock as the structure came down.”

The village, which has the Periyar flowing along one side and the Chalakudy on the other, remains cut off from the rest of Ernakulam with the floodwaters showing no signs of receding.