In the aftermath of the Kerala floods, victims try to pick up the pieces of their lives

Idicula Gevarghese, forced to abandon his home in the town of Venmoney in the southern Indian state of Keral...

Posted: Aug. 22, 2018 4:18 PM
Updated: Aug. 22, 2018 4:19 PM

Idicula Gevarghese, forced to abandon his home in the town of Venmoney in the southern Indian state of Kerala last week, returned with his family on Monday to the ruins of their lives.

Three of them -- himself, his wife and their granddaughter -- came back to the swamped house armed with disinfectant, and began the overwhelming task of clearing out five days of muck and water.

Accidents, disasters and safety

Floods and flooding

Natural disasters

They had left in a hurry the previous week, anxious about getting stranded in the floodwaters that swept through the villages and towns of southern Kerala just a day later.

"Everyone left. So we also left. By the grace of God, at least we are living," he tells CNN.

After they left, Gevarghese checked in on the property every day, watching as the swirling, filthy water rose inexorably, submerging their belongings.

Starting almost two weeks ago, large parts of Kerala were devastated as flash floods swept through the state. Some parts, like Gevarghese's home of Venmony, held out for a week, but eventually succumbed. Rivers overflowed and sewage lines were blocked as water rushed through streets and homes across large swaths of the state.

He laments how much of the family's belongings are ruined -- the water pump, the fridge, their beds and sofas are all damaged. The wood of the cupboards is spoiled. He tells CNN that he's estimated his losses at around 100,000 rupees (about $1,400).

In almost every home in the area, it's the same story. Electronics have short-circuited and even the goods residents had piled on top of high shelves and on tables fell prey to the rising waters.

Among the ruins of Gevarghese's home, the strong odor of disinfectant can't mask the pervasive rotting smell of water-damaged wood and waterlogged upholstery.

Waiting for assistance

In Venmony families cluster together, sheltering on stoops outside their homes as they wait for some kind of relief.

A truck, carrying about 20 young men, rolls up. Cheers fill the streets and smiles break out as the men throw packets of biscuits and bottles of water into the crowd. Singling out women among the faces, the men hand out packets of sanitary pads as people run alongside the truck begging for candles.

With the power out for days, candles provide the only respite from the dark.

The truck's owner, Sam Daniel, collected the provisions from residents in his town 30 kilometers (around 19 miles) away, which escaped the floods. He decided that he needs to help out in this "severe situation."

He says that the government is too stretched to take care of these rural populations. "The government thinks that they need to manage relief camps. But what about isolated places like this?" he asks.

"(The residents) have money but what good will that do? Money can't help them here."

Emergency funds

But at the regional level, money is sorely needed.

The Kerala chief minister has estimated a total loss of over Rs 19,000 crore ($2.7 billion) from the devastating floods and has requested Rs 2,600 crore ($371 million) from the national government. So far Kerala has received only around the equivalent of Rs 600 crore ($85.8 million).

The government has allocated almost 90,000 tons of grain in emergency relief, which has been airlifted in by the Indian Air Force. Alongside food, 65 metric tons of emergency drugs, 10 million chlorine tablets and tons of bleaching powder have also been hurriedly dispatched.

Collection centers have been set up across the state and tons of food, clothes, sanitary supplies, bottled water -- some of it donated by locals who escaped the worst of the rains and by nongovernmental organizations along with that purchased by the state government -- are loaded into trucks.

The state government has been pouring relief and material into the towns, racing against time to deal with possible outbreaks of disease, removing the remains of animals caught in the floods and trying to contain sewage.

On the national highways crisscrossing the state, trucks carrying fishing boats from the coast to assist in the rescue line the streets and trucks loaded with supplies stand outside relief camps, set up ad hoc by the state government.

Coping

But even as the government is scrambling to reach out to everyone in the state, certain areas seem to have fallen off the radar.

In Venmony, even with knee-high water surrounding their house, Rohi Philip and a handful of his family members and neighbors seem cheerful and optimistic. After running low on supplies, they received some much-needed aid from the Fire and Safety force Sunday.

It couldn't have come any sooner. "We had only one candle last night for the entire group. We sat together in the dark after it went out," says Philip's son, Adarsh.

Nearby, 18-year-old Ashwin Dev and his parents had to take refuge in a neighbor's house. "Our fridge, washing machine, sofa sets -- all ruined," he says. His father drives an autorickshaw -- a cheap form of public transport -- and he says they have "no idea where the money to replace it will come from."

The government has asked residents to report their losses with the local village council or district officials in an attempt to reassure residents that they will be compensated. But Dev is all too familiar with the snail's pace of Indian bureaucracy and harbors serious doubts that they'll ever see the money.

The last two weeks have devastated one of the country's most developed states and while money is coming in, thanks to the government and the generosity of the Indian diaspora, the rehabilitation will take more than just money.

Idicula Gevarghese prepares to leave his uninhabitable home with his wife and looks out, into where his garden once thrived.

"It will take 20 to 25 years to bring Kerala back to what it was," he says.

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