On August 20, while travelling across Kerala to report on the worst floods to hit the state since 1924, I found myself at a relief camp in Kunnukara gram panchayat, in Ernakulam district.
After flood water had inundated the gram panchayat, more than 500 people had taken refuge in the Sree Narayana Institute of Medical Sciences, the only multi-storied building in the area. They stayed there for three days without food and water. Ambili, one of the women at the camp, told me she had feared many children would starve to death. “Luckily we survived until the first consignment of food and water reached there on August 18 after the flood water receded,” she had said.
After spending two hours in the camp, I was preparing to leave when 60-year-old Valsala insisted that I should eat lunch with them. I turned down the request politely saying that I had to visit many more camps before sunset. But she insisted. “You journalists are working overtime for us,” she said. “Without you people, the government would not have known our fate and we would have died without food and water. We are indebted to you. So please eat lunch with us. This is a token of our gratitude.”
I said I would have some water, but was handed a banana along with a bottle of water. As I left the place, I recalled the elderly woman’s words, which filled my heart with pride at being a journalist.
Haunted by a smell
The floods killed 433 people and affected 5.4 million residents of 1,259 villages spread across Kerala’s 14 districts. According to the latest Post-Disaster Needs Assessment by the United Nations, the state suffered losses worth Rs 31,000 crore in the floods.
This was one of the most depressing reporting assignments of my journalism career. I saw first-hand the miseries of people who were stranded in their flooded homes without food and water for many days before being rescued and shifted to the safety of government-run relief camps. All around me, I saw grief-stricken people who had lost their loved ones, homes and property and crops.
A visit to Kuthiyathode St Xavier’s Church, also in Kunnukara gram panchayat, was particularly upsetting. On August 16, six people were crushed to death here after the parish hall collapsed on them due to heavy rain.
Church vicar Vargehese Palatty briefed me about the incident and gave me the details of the six people whose bodies had been pulled out from the debris. As I started taking photographs of the collapsed structure, a foul smell hit me hard. Even as I was trying to cover my nose, Palatty asked me if I could smell the foul odour. “I am afraid some more people were buried inside,” he said, by way of explanation. “The search operation will be resumed either tomorrow or day after. We are keeping our fingers crossed.”
The smell followed me for two days. That, and images in my head of people buried under the debris, meant that I could not eat or drink anything during that period. I called Palatty the next day for an update, but he did not answer my call. When I called him a day later, he had good news. “By the grace of God, no one was found inside the debris,” he said. “We are lucky.”
Reporter or relief worker?
On August 22, I was at Chengannur, one of the worst flood-affected areas. It lies on the eastern extremity of Alappuzha district, on the banks of the Pampa river. Even after the floods subsided, many areas in Chengannur remained inundated for many days. Pandanad gram panchayat was one of them. When I was travelling through its waterlogged neighbourhoods, people stopped my vehicle as they thought I was a relief worker distributing water. I told them that I am a journalist. They even checked my vehicle only to be disappointed.
I went back to Tiruvalla, a town 20 km from Chengannur where I was staying, and bought three cases of water bottles and 10 kg of bananas. The driver and I distributed them whenever people stopped our vehicle. At one point, a policeman stopped us to ask for some water. He had been on duty for the past 48 hours and had not eaten for a day. “I never sought help from journalists,” he said. “This was my first experience. I will never forget this.”
That day I realised a journalist could also help with relief while reporting on a disaster.
In this series, Scroll.in reporters look back at their experiences while reporting a significant story in 2018.
Read more in this series here.