Poorest hit hardest by south India floods

Published: 1 December 2015 10:23 CET
In Chennai, Red Cross staff and volunteers helped 468 families evacuate from the Vijay Shanthi apartment complex, which was flooded and where residents no longer had running water, sewerage or electricity. Photo Credit: Indian Red Cross Society

By Rosemarie North, IFRC

Weeks of torrential rain in south India have left thousands of people facing an uncertain future. In November, the heaviest rain in decades, aggravated by Tropical Cyclone Rovan, brought widespread flooding across the south Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh causing more than 200 deaths and affecting 1.8 million people.

Three weeks after her home was destroyed, Mary Calista, who lives in Kalkunam in low-lying Cuddalore, 200km from Chennai in Tamil Nadu, isn’t sure how she will rebuild. She remembers when disaster struck her community on 9 November vividly.

“We had no warning there could be flooding. Our main worry was the wind – that’s why we were inside. Suddenly water inside the house was waist-high.”

She grabbed the children and ran to safety, in a nearby church, where 15 other families were also sheltering on the concrete floor. 

As the water receded, the family saw the walls of their mud brick house had collapsed and the thatched roof now rested on the ground on the remains that hadn’t been washed away.

Over the next two weeks, they managed to salvage some belongings such as school books for their 10-year-old son Aathish they could prop up to dry. Other things – clothes, books, flour grinder, fan, TV and storage cupboard – were gone or ruined.

Once, when her husband went to salvage their belongings, he saw a snake on the roof slide inside the house. Snakes pose an additional hazard as they hunt the rats that have fled from the surrounding fields during the flood. As we talk, Mary Calista knocks a leech off the roof to the ground.

She mourns the loss of her house. “It was nice. It was beautiful. I took good care of it. I have no idea what we’ll do,” she says.

The family is still staying in the church, using emergency aid distributed by the Indian Red Cross. They’ve received 5,000 rupees (70 EUROS, USD 75) from the government but rebuilding will cost ten times more. They don’t have the money. Mary Calista earns 100 rupees (EUROS 1.4, USD 1.5) a day doing agricultural work.

To meet immediate needs, the Indian Red Cross Society has so far distributed 3,000 packets of food as well as blankets, clothing, cooking sets, tarpaulins and mosquito nets. Local Red Cross branches also provided cooked food for people forced to evacuate to schools, places of worship or community centres.

To support the Indian Red Cross Society, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies released 295,550 Swiss francs (271,000 EUROS, USD 287,000) from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund on 30 November to assist 17,500 people over the next three months with rapid assessments, relief items, clean water and education on good hygiene and disease prevention.

Many people in the flooded areas lead precarious, subsistence lives. Some belong to tribal or scheduled castes, which adds to their social and economic disadvantage.

The disaster ruined the business of Shashikumar and Krishnamma Surati in the small town of Vatrapalem in Andhra Pradesh.

“We had a small shop selling groceries. The flood ruined 2,000 rupees of stock. It also destroyed our house. It’s a total loss,” said Shashikumar Surati.

For now, they and their children, aged nine and 13, are camping in the concrete frame of a house that is under construction.

P. Dhananjayulu, disaster management coordinator at the Andhra Pradesh branch, says most people affected by the floods were already vulnerable.“People are mostly day labourers. If they don’t work, they don’t eat. When a disaster like this happens, they suffer a lot,” he says.

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