Kerala floods: More than 1m evacuated as fleet of civilian fishing boats race to rescue and death toll rises

Officials are facing a race against time to rescue those still stranded – with more rain forecast over the coming days

Adam Withnall
Monday 20 August 2018 15:11 BST
Volunteers rescue animalss in the Kerala floods

More than 1 million people have now been evacuated from their homes amid what has been described as the worst flooding for a century in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

Stories of heroism have started to emerge as the monsoon rains finally eased off on Monday, but officials say more than 360 people have lost their lives in what has become a national crisis.

Special measures have been put in place since the prime minister, Narendra Modi, flew over the disaster-stricken region on Saturday, including the opening of military airbases for commercial flights and new powers for police to arrest anyone who refuses to evacuate their home.

But the “biggest heroes” were volunteer fishermen, who came inland from the coast in a fleet of around 600 boats to help rescue stranded villagers, according to the tourism minister KJ Alphons.

Each of the boats will be granted a reward of 3,000 rupees (£33) for providing assistance, the Keralan government said, while the state will also pay for the costs of repairing any boats damaged in the rescue effort.

Mr Alphons said that since the flooding began on 8 August, more than 1 million people had been given shelter in around 5,500 relief camps set up by the government across the state.

Many are spread across the coastal town of Alappuzha, and while most are in schools, at least one is on the grounds of a mosque, where Christians, Hindus and Muslims have all found food and a place to sleep. The state is one of the most religiously diverse in India.

The town itself sits on slightly higher ground and has escaped the worst of the flooding, but just a few kilometres out into the countryside the situation is far more serious.

“The water came almost up to my head,” said Ullas, a 48-year-old man who uses only one name, and who fled his village for the safety of the town.

He has no idea when he’ll be able to return. “We don’t know,” he said, as he helped distribute food in one relief centre. “It could take a month.”

From Supreme Court judges to sports stars and celebrities, offers of financial and material support have come in from all over the country.

One eight-year-old girl has made national headlines after asking her father to donate all her piggy bank savings, accumulated over four years, to the Kerala flooding victims. Anupriya, who lives in neighbouring Tamil Nadu state, had been saving up for a bicycle.

She told The Indian Express: “I saw the people suffering in the floods in Kerala. So I asked my father to give all the money I had saved in my piggy banks to them.” A popular bike brand, Hero Cycles, has since offered to reward Anupriya’s generosity and gift her a bicycle anyway.

With dozens still missing, the death toll from the floods is likely to rise further, and rescuers are still battling to reach some tens of thousands of stranded villagers.

Kerala’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, said there was no shortage of food in the state as traders had stocked up ahead of Onam, a Hindu harvest festival and the state’s biggest annual celebration, on 25 August. The state has now cancelled all official celebrations.

“The biggest challenges immediately ahead are cleaning of the flood-hit houses, rehabilitation, and prevention of waterborne diseases,” said Mahesh P, a village-level officer from Rayamangalam, some 45km from Kerala’s financial capital of Kochi.

Anil Vasudevan, who handles disaster management at Kerala’s health department, said the state was preparing to battle any outbreak of disease in the relief camps and preventive medicines were being distributed.

Mahesh said villagers had all pulled together to rescue people and prevent an even bigger disaster. “The bulk of the credit for the rescue goes to the ordinary citizens. The army, the navy, the local authorities assisted them,” he said.

“The flood has bonded the people like never before, with people sharing whatever they had.”

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