Being in Kerala during the Time of "Red Alert"
by Humera Ahmed
In the bedroom of my Mumbai flat, I have a small silver gilded picture frame displaying a blow-up of the stamp released in 2008 when the Kurunji flowers last bloomed on the hills of Munnar. For the past 12 years, I have been waiting for the next bloom. This year – 2018 it was due for its 12-year bloom in the hills of Munnar from July to October. I decided to go, to view the hills covered with the purple and blue expanse of this rare flowers. At my stage in life, I wasn’t sure whether I would be there for the next bloom in 2030. Since I hadn’t been to Thekkady, which was just 50km away, I decided to combine it with the visit to Munnar.
So I booked Deluxe rooms at the KTDC - Tea country resort in Munnar for 12th and 13th August and on 14th August at the Aranya Niwas resort in Thekkady. I was to return on 15th night to Kochi to attend the inaugural function of Onam celebrations scheduled to take place at Ernakulam.
The 66th Nehru Boat race was taking place on 11th August, so I combined it with Munnar and Thekkadi visit. And therefore, planned to be in Kochi on 9th August and depart from Trivandrum on the 18th after spending two days with a friend and her mother at Trivandrum.
On 9th August, I reached the Domestic airport at Santa Cruz two hours early to avoid being stranded due to dislocation caused by the Bandh call in Mumbai in support of reservations for Marathas in Government services. Apprehensive of the city shutting down, many passengers reported in the morning for their evening flights.
The Indigo flight scheduled at 1130 took off on time. The landing time was 1.15 but till 1 pm there was no announcement of descending into Kochi. Then came the announcement that we would be landing in Coimbatore as Kochi airport was closed due to flooding. Later we learnt that the airport had suspended operations as a precautionary measure since the gates of the Idduki and Mullaperiyar dam had been opened, and had been closed for two hours. The flights resumed later in the evening though many were delayed.
Indigo Airlines had however made arrangements by Volvo buses from Coimbatore to Kochi. So I got in one of the three buses and via Palakkad and the temple town of Thrissur, (the photos of the flood-hit town were in the papers the next day), reached Kochi at 10-30 pm. The Uber taxi driver informed me that the Nehru Boat race scheduled to take place on 11th was postponed. However, despite the landslides on route to Munnar, we were hopeful that by 12th, the weather would improve. The cab driver was also picking up passengers late night from the airport who were to visit Munnar. The Kurunji bloom was a major attraction – so also the celebrations of Onam.
The next day was bright and sunny but the news was grim from both Munnar and Thekkady which were cut off due to floods and landslides … And from 10th onwards my Travel diary carried, instead of visits to different tourist sites and description of picturesque landscape, updates of rainfall, floods, names of dams whose gates had been opened, districts under red alert, statistics of people rendered homeless, rescue and relief camps set up, of the messages of solidarity and comfort from various VIP’s and amounts donated by different states and agencies etc. And my What’sUp was clogged with horrific images of flooded houses and pathetic pictures of people (aged and children) stranded on rooftops.
The disaster was due to heavy rainfall, massive damming of rivers and concretization of cities and towns. It was a natural disaster in which human greed played a major role.
If the rainfall in June and July had been nearly 20% more than normal in August it was in many parts nearly 50% above the normal... Hence, all dams were overflowing and therefore the gates and shutters of about 35 dams were opened. The overflow from the big dams such as the Idduki, Mulla Periyar Idamalayar, Cheruthani caused massive flooding and together with the all the 44 rivers in spate – many feared that whole of Kerala would be submerged.
But despite this ominous forecast, and the hardships, the never die spirit of the people of Kerala was very much evident – on the roads, in buses, in the metro and the great shopping paradise of Kochi – the Lulu Mall.
Unable to visit Munnar and Thekkady and Red alert in almost all districts I spent considerable time visiting families of close friends residing near Kochi - in Parumbavoor and Chertala and despite not knowing the language, found it easy to roam in and around Kochi in various transport the city offered… In Chertala, a friends daughter was admitted for delivery of her second child. In Parumbavoor in a 200-year-old traditional house, the uncle of a friend- who I had met when he was very active, lay bedridden suffering from dementia – totally oblivious of the mayhem wrecked by nature’s fury just some mile’s away.
And all this while rescue operations were on and various channels aired dismal pictures of displaced people and those stranded in flood-hit areas. When on 18th morning, I took the Indigo flight from Trivandrum nearly a million people were in approximately 4000 relief camps. But together with stories of disaster and destruction were inspiring stories of rescue and relief. The courageous and large-hearted fisherman of Kerala took their boats, about 600 or so for evacuating people from flood-hit areas. NGO’s, civil rights groups all pitted in to help the civic authorities. Bread vanished from the bakeries in Trivandrum – it had been bought and sent by people to the relief camps. The kindness and generosity of the people were laudable. My own experience was unforgettable. It was the kindness of a young boy and girl – total strangers which helped me in leaving flood hit Kochi and reach Trivandrum in the evening of 16th August.
My outbound flight was from Trivandrum on 18th morning. I was scheduled to leave Ernakulam for Trivandrum in the afternoon of 16th by train. But when I reached the station I learnt that all train services were cancelled. Since bus services to Trivandrum were still operating, I went to the bus station. The KRTC buses were full- all seats had been reserved online. If I wanted to travel to Trivandrum, Trivandrum, I had to stand – at least till Kollam. Standing for five hours is difficult when young – as a senior citizen it was impossible. I got down feeling disconcerted, lugging my two heavy bags and waded through the knee-deep water to the ticket window to try getting a ticket if possible by an ordinary bus. As I struggled through the waters with the bags, a young man (perhaps twenty-two or three years old) came up and said,”You will not be able to get a bus now. There are two of us and we will adjust.”
I couldn’t understand how he could do so. It was not possible for three passengers to sit in a seat meant for two as the seats were so narrow. But since he was insisting I went back to the bus and sat next to Tessie, the girl accompanying him, who was about his age and worked in an IT company. I learnt that the young man Varghese Felix was her friend and they worked in Ernakulum and lived in Kollam. Though Tessie kept offering to take turns, Varghese didn’t allow her. In the meantime, the bus was packed – with passengers standing amidst the seats. The bus reached Kollam at 7 pm – it had started at 2.30 and as the couple bid me bye, my eyes filled with tears. It was an act of kindness I will never forget and pray that God showers his blessings on them. It is such acts of kindness which restore one’s faith in humanity. And it enabled me to catch my flight on 18th morning as from 17th morning.
The next morning, road and rail traffic between Trivandrum and Ernakulam, were also closed. If it hadn’t been for Tessie and Varghese, I would have been stranded in Kochi for days as the airport was closed till 26th August. As the flight took off, I prayed for Kerala and its people. ***