I started writing about the Independence Day flood on the most important day for Kerala, Onam. Kerala’s sate harvest festival celebrated by all Malayalis, irrespective of their religion. But the mood I felt during this Onam was similar to the one I felt on the Sunday after 9/11 in Dallas, where the sense of security of the whole nation was shaken.
The historic flood affected more than 3 million people, roughly ten percent of Kerala’s population, with nearly one in three affected by the flood ending up in a relief camp. Everyone had at least one member of their immediate circle of family, friends or colleague severely affected by the flood. For the first time in my life I saw almost everyone in the state breaking the cardinal rule about Onam when a child is taught in Kerala.
anam vittalum Onam unnanam” meaning Onam must be celebrated, even if you have to sell your only piece of land. I asked my children to at least make the pookkalam, floral arrangement in front of the house, which they refused as none of their friends were doing it and nobody was even greeting or sending the Happy Onam messages. This was enough for me to recognize the scale of the disaster and I felt sad that I couldn’t help my state in mourning as I was consumed in dealing with our own crisis. I thought the best I could do as a writer was to document what we went through as it happened and capture the lessons learned for a future generation to refer to and to take measures to minimize the effect of a future flood, which is not in our control.
Even a week after the flood, some people from Aluva are still in relief camps as their houses are filled with a feet of mud that difficult to clear and the picture that will stay in my mind forever is the image of a lady dangling from the air force helicopter amidst heavy rain and gusty wind. I am convinced even if we may not see a repeat of this level of flood in our life time, a future generation in Aluva cannot duck this.
Air Force helicopter rescuing a lady in the second attempt. (Photo credit: James Joseph)
Though Kerala missed the opportunity to release water from the dams during a week of sunshine between the first warning on July 30 and the second on July 8, nothing in the current rule book of the state could have prepared it for what happened between August 13 and 17. Check the large purple spot in this image from NASA, it is above the three dams in Periyar. As per the image, between August 13 and 20, we had severe rains all across Kerala but more than 18 inches of rain above the three dams in a week.
(Photo credit: NASA)As I mentioned earlier, the flood level started to decrease on the morning of August 18, which means bulk of the rain NASA image is showing happened between 13 and 17. The quantum of water the dams and Periyar downstream received in those five days was many times more than what we would have released by reducing the level by a few inches during the sunny spell. That still doesn’t excuse anyone from missing that opportunity.
I can only thank God for not sending more water than what the dams could release, which would have caused a dam breach like the New Orleans levy breach during Katrina and the catastrophe could have been worse than the 14 th century flood and would have changed Aluva’s georgraphy one more time.
If we can’t prevent this quantum of rain from happening again for a future generation, we should look at how we can help them to prepare for the flood better than us.
A NASA image showing the monsoon affected regions. (Photo credit: NASA)Lessons for the future generation:
Flood level marking
What worked for us the most was the experience of 2013. We knew the water level at that time and the quantum of water released and this helped me prepare for even a higher level of water when the dams started releasing six times more water, but my worst case estimate was five feet while we ended up with 10 feet more water.
Many residents didn’t had this reference point and the authorities couldn’t warn them objectively. The truth is almost 60 percent of the population could have stayed on their first floor and weathered the flood if the max levels were known and if they had stocked up water and food as per the first warning.
As a first step we should make permanent physical marks and digital records of the farthest point flood reached from the river and the height at various intervals along with the max amount of water released from all dams to the respective river during the flood. Such catastrophic floods may not happen twice in one life time but a future generation shouldn't miss these important reference points.
2. Critical weather forecasts should be public
After the flood we heard authorities missed weather forecasts. If this purple dot above the dams in Periyar was predicted, when the dams were already reaching full capacity due to the summer rain, it would have helped Kerala people prepare a lot better. Instead of issuing memos, forecasters should have held public press conferences.
Also if this quantum of rain is really predictable, we need to know how many times this was predicted in the past and how soon can this happen again. It's pointless to speak to press after the fact, Kerala media was craving for information before August 13 and was trying their own best to predict this. A press conference from forecasters would have improved our preparedness.
We must expect even higher quantum of water in the future and avoid the worst case scenario of water crossing the safety limit of any of the dams. One callous comment to media by a very senior official of the state electricity board, which manages the largest Idukki Dam, lost people’s trust in the electricity board in ensuring the safety of people below the dams. During the week of sunny spell there was public demand to start releasing water from at least one dam so that we could avoid the simultaneous opening of two dams.
3. Dam safety audit by neutral world experts The official made an impromptu statement that the monetary loss of releasing water early would be too much for electricity board. In hindsight a minor water release during that week wouldn’t have made much difference, but that statement would be etched in the dark history of Kerala forever.
Every time I look at the image of this lady dangling from the helicopter with a helpless gesture of arms stretched out, I feel she and many like her deserve an apology from the official for that insensitive remark. To build the trust, we need to make a safety audit of all our dams by neutral global experts and new safety levels must be set separate for the two spells of monsoon in Kerala known
Kaalavasham starting in June and Tulavarsham in October. 4. Flood-friendly building designs
Buildings should be designed to overcome floods, similar to how old buildings below flood lines were designed to let the flood pass. The oldest building next to us is a traditional During the flood we didn’t see any panic action, they all moved to the top floor and stayed up like we did. Once the water started retreating below ground floor level, one young man started cleaning the big building with the water from the retreating flood. And the house was back to normal within a day while we have much smaller houses still struggling to clear the mess and to dry furniture with built in cushions. Conventional wisdom is to clean the house as the water retreats, which elders in our building started doing but I had stop as the risk of any of them falling while cleaning glazed tiles was to too much of a risk for me to handle during that time.
ettukettu, a two story building with a courtyard in the middle with firebrick tiles on ground floor and wooden floor on first with tiled roof. It’s owned by the senior most member of the erstwhile royal family on our side of the river. Architects should accept such floods as a possibility in Kerala and look at old buildings and try bringing back some of the technics to let the flood pass.
A drain pipes in every room is what helped the young man clean the big building in no time. This concept was discontinued to prevent insects from the entering the house but we should bring it back and seal it with removable end caps that can be opened during floods. Access to rain water harvesting from top floors is another design change we could consider. I was prepared to cut the rain water pipe from terrace which goes to a collection tank in basement if we ran out of water in the fire hydrant. Provide funnel like structure above water tanks with a valve to divert rain water into the tank or to drain. Rain water is the only good source of water during flood and at least one solar panel above every house to charge cell phones.
5. Insurance Claims
This flood was the best opportunity to demonstrate the worth for insurance companies especially general and non-life insurance ones. Surveyors were the most difficult to get hold off, we had several cars in the building including ours under water during the flood, categorized as total loss. I had to come back every time a surveyor came to inspect the vehicle. One of them asked me for a copy of the insurance, which was in the car under water. I was in the middle of restoring essential services to our building and came down only because he insisted that I need to be around. I had worked in the automotive industry and later in IT and during my last five years at Microsoft I spent a lot of time with chief information officers of the top insurance companies. A customer focused insurance company only requires a photo of the vehicle with the registration number plate. They have systems in place to get all information related to your vehicle.
Instead of asking you anything they should ideally saying, “Dear customer, a total loss is a worst thing which can happen to a vehicle and we are sorry it has happened. But you have done the best possible thing to minimize your damage by insuring with us. Please send a photo of your vehicle by WhatsApp and we will send you a copy of your policy with the list of your entitlements. Our surveyor will be there as soon as possible and all he or she needs is access to your keys to take some inside pictures”.In case of a total loss from a natural calamity, government should consider giving credits for unused road tax and GST for the new vehicle.
The insensitive but proactive message came from my life insurance provider, with a message to secure my death certificate at the earliest, in case I am an affected party, what can I say.
Lastly there were some moments of sadness while we were going through this, hopefully, once in a century event.
One was during the helicopter rescue operation where 14 people were pulled up and they promised to return to take others in the building. I saw an old man, being helped by two ladies on both sides to climb eight floors to the terrace. Then the rain worsened and the helicopter couldn’t return making him walk all the way back. Being next to the river we also saw several dead cattle and goats flowing down the river.
While hearing the noise from the electric line, I saw two squirrels stranded on the almond tree next to us, one of them jumped to the papaya tree and then to our fence, ran all the way to the end and climbed to safety to the jackfruit tree on the other end. I called my daughters to show them how the second squirrel is following the same path. The other one reached the papaya tree but was not confident to jump to the fence and therefore went back to the almond tree. But before it could make it to the tree, the squirrel slipped into the water and we never saw it again.
Lastly there were several dogs left alone on the top floors of houses around us with food. Thought they were physically safe, the loneliness and the water scared them and we could hear their cries all nights and days till the owners returned.
James Joseph is the founder of Jackfruit365.com and the author of God’s Own Office. This is the last of a three-part series of articles on the Kerala floods. Read the first two parts
here and here.