The worst of the floods behind them, residents of Alappuzha and Pathanamthitta districts in Kerala have started the process of rebuilding their homes, places of business and their lives. “We have to start from scratch” is a refrain heard often in these parts. But it is also quite often followed by “We shall overcome”.

The two districts were flooded on August 10 when the shutters of the Kakki, Kochu Pampa and Anathode reservoirs were opened to let out the raging waters of the Pampa, Manimalayar and Achankoil rivers. According to state government data released on August 22, the floods left 29 people dead in Alappuzha while 700 relief camps were set up across the district to house over 3 lakh people. Three persons were killed in neighbouring Pathanamthitta where the floods forced 1,15,519 people into 503 relief camps.

Across Kerala, the damage inflicted by its worst floods in a century is extensive – at least 223 people dead since August 8, with the toll standing at around 370 since the monsoon reached the state on May 29.

With the rains easing up and the flood waters starting to recede across the state since August 18, inmates at relief camps have been going to their homes to clean and salvage what they can. The task is daunting. Many have struggled to remove the thick layers of mud caking their floors, walls and furniture.

Raju Chacko, a resident of Chengannur in Alappuzha, stands in flood waters outside his home as he washes his furniture clean.

Cleaning and safety checks

In Alappuzha and Pathanamthitta, the clean-up gathered momentum on Wednesday with the arrival of hundreds of volunteers, both from and outside the state. They brought with them rubber gloves, bleaching powder and antiseptic lotion apart from food and water. They were joined by members of political parties, religious and volunteer organisations.

Susan Benny, 55, a resident of Chengannur municipality in Alappuzha, started cleaning her home on Wednesday and was ready to throw in the towel when help arrived. “My three daughters and I had tried hard to remove the thick mud but we had failed and were about to call it quits and return to the relief camp,” she said. “At that point, three youngsters took over the difficult task. My house is clean now. I am grateful to them.”

Around 500 volunteers of the National Service Scheme – a government-sponsored public service programme – drawn from various colleges under Kerala University fanned through Chengannur cleaning schools and homes. “Cleaning has to be completed in Chengannur as early as possible,” said Dr K Gopakumar, Kollam district coordinator of the National Service Scheme. “That is why we came here.”

At the same time, members of the Kerala Electrical Wiremen and Supervisors Association worked to restore power supply, visiting homes to check cables and meters for safety. “Electricity will be restored only after completing the inspection,” said its president Jose Daniel.

Chengannur, in the eastern extreme of Alappuzha on the banks of the Pampa river, is among the worst affected towns in Kerala. In one of its neighbourhoods, Edanad, more than 50,000 people were stranded for three days without food and water after flooding on August 14. On August 17, Chengannur MLA Saji Cherian had brought the plight of the town to national attention when he broke down in tears during an interview on a Malayalam television channel. “Please, please ask [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi to give us helicopters, otherwise 50,000 people will die,” he had pleaded on air.

Chengannur MLA Saji Cherian consoles a flood victim at a relief camp.

On Wednesday, Cherian told, “They would have died if the water level rose by just one foot – that thought made me cry.”

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA said 50,000 houses in Chengannur had been damaged and the town had suffered losses to the tune of more than Rs 500 crore.

Located in neighbouring Pathanamthitta district is the town of Ranni, which also lies on the banks of the Pampa. Here, the clean-up process has turned the streets into a garbage dump. Shop owners could be seen cleaning their premises and dumping the mud and trash on the streets. Benny Mathew, who was cleaning his store, Benny’s Upholstery, said, “Hope the government will help us clear the debris.”

Benny Mathews (centre) cleans his upholstery shop.

The piling trash has given rise to worries of the spread of disease and prompted volunteers and activists to spray bleaching liquid all over town. “We want to prevent an epidemic outbreak,” said James Kannimala, a volunteer. “Hope the government will take immediate action soon.”

Still under water

But while the slow walk to normalcy has begun, many people are yet to come to terms with their losses. This is particularly true in Thiruvanvandoor and Pandanad gram panchayats, the worst affected areas in Chengannur. In this region where paddy and sugarcane farming is the main source of income for farmers, hectares of farmland lie under piles of slushy mud.

Kaladharan, who lives in a tiny house fashioned out of asbestos sheets, had taken five hectares of land on lease to cultivate sugarcane. His field now lies under water. “I have lost all my investment,” he lamented.

Kaladharan's sugarcane field lies under water.

In other areas, the damage to their homes has residents dejected.

“My house could fall anytime, said Prakash, a daily-wage labourer who lives in Eravallikkara colony, a Dalit settlement where the flood waters have not yet receded and all 45 homes have developed cracks. He added, “I am scared to live here. We will continue to stay in the relief camp till we get a new house.”

Ranjith, a gram panchayat member who represents Eravallikkara, said the homes of 100 Dalit families in his ward were now unliveable. “We cannot ask people to stay in damaged houses,” he pointed out.

In Pandanad gram panchayat too, community members spoke of being afraid to go back to their homes. KK Ajith Kumar said he was not even sure if his home still stood. Recalling how he had survived the floods on August 14, he said, “As many as 110 people living in 70 houses in three colonies – Chirakkudi, Thuruthikkady and Peroorkkad – swam in the flood waters and stayed in a two-storey building for three days without food and water.” He added that fishermen finally rescued them and took them to a relief camp.

Kumar and a group of his fellow inmates at the relief camp tried to go back to their colony on Wednesday. “We could not get in as the water level has not receded,” he said.

Many residents in Pandanad complained that they received no warning of the floods and blamed the gram panchayat officials. “That is why 1,600 people were stranded here,” said Ratheesh Kumar, a social worker.

Kumar said that when the water levels started to rise, he and his friends cut up banana tree trunks and used these as make-shift rafts to rescue people. “We rescued a few elderly people but halted our mission when the water level rose further,” he said. “Fishermen from Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam rescued the remaining people.”

Among those stranded in Pandanad was Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s security guard Saji John. “I was on leave when the flood hit our place,” he said. “My family spent three days on the terrace of our house without food and water. We were rescued on August 18.”

Saji John, security guard to the chief minister, was home on leave and stranded in the floods.

Despite the difficulties, some residents have started the process of cleaning their homes. Thiruvanvandoor resident Thomas Kutty, 75, was among them. On Wednesday, he rowed a country boat across the flooded paddy fields surrounding his home, requesting people to help him with the task. “Since my wife and I cannot clean the house, I came here looking for people to help me,” he explained.

Volunteers set out to clean Thomas Kutty's home.

Clean water, medicines

Villagers in the two panchayats have received some help. With the health department advising residents not to drink water from the wells, the fire and rescue department has started distributing clean drinking water. “The well water is contaminated, so we are serving them drinking water,” said fireman VS Shibu.

At the Primary Health Centre, employees are busy cleaning up the premises in preparation for the possible outbreak of diseases. The staff expect fresh stocks of essential medicines, to replace those destroyed in the floods, to arrive soon. “There are chances of epidemic outbreak, so we have to be prepared,” said nurse Geethamma.

Muddy water in a well in Eravallikkara colony.

All photographs by TA Ameerudheen