Midnight evacuations in flood-hit South India

Published: 4 December 2015 9:11 CET

By Rosemarie North, IFRC

As fresh rain pounds south India, stories are emerging of sudden evacuations and improvised rescues. People in the Andhra Pradesh coastal town of Kolanakuduru watched the rising floodwaters with alarm. Their thatched houses sit only a few centimetres above fields that have been awash since heavy rain associated with Cyclone Rovan began in November, killing more than 260 and affecting 3 million people across three states.

All day and all evening, Y. Vijayamma and her children, 9 and 12, watched and waited, hoping the water would somehow drain away. It was hopeless. Y. Vijayamma phoned a neighbour with a boat to pluck them to safety in a midnight evacuation. For days, people in communities like Kolanakuduru were marooned in brackish water without electricity or means of communication.

“We had to come back because there were 50 of us there and not enough food,” Y. Vijayamma said.

When they returned home, they found the flood had destroyed the woven palm walls of their house, washing away all their belongings. “Now I’m worried about clothes, food, kitchen equipment and other things. We have only the clothes on our backs,” she added.

Boat was the only means of transportation that the Indian Red Cross Society could use for their rescue operation and to provide first aid or distribute relief. The disaster blocked roads and railway lines and closed Chennai airport, making it even more difficult to reach people in need. Red Cross staff and volunteers lashed tyre inner tubes to doors or tables as makeshift rafts to float people to safety.

In Chennai, the Red Cross evacuated more than 400 families from an apartment complex. The lower floors were flooded and occupants lived without water or electricity until they were rescued. Using ropes and rafts, it took one and a half days to clear the building.

So far, the Red Cross has distributed 3,000 packets of food, blankets, towels, clothes, sheets, pots, kerosene stoves, plastic buckets, tarpaulins and mosquito nets. Red Cross branches also cooked rice with tamarind, chappatis and other food for people forced to evacuate to schools, places of worship or community centres.

The Red Cross also helped recover bodies, and transported them to mortuaries before returning them to their families. Other activities included setting up an emergency helpline, running health camps, carrying out hygiene promotion campaigns and educating them on how to avoid dengue and malaria, collecting blood and clearing downed trees from roads. 

More help is on its way. To support the Indian Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) released 295,550 Swiss francs (USD 298,000) from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund this week to assist 17,500 people with rapid assessments, family packs, water purification and hygiene promotion over the next 3 months. The International Committee of the Red Cross has also contributed household items including sheets, towels and blankets to help flood-hit people in Karnataka.

About 50 kilometres inland, at Dakkili, life went from bad to worse for Polamma Eega and her family. Until two years ago, she, another 8 adults and 10 children had lived in Penchalakona, in Andhra Pradesh. They made a living cleaning the grounds of a temple and eating offerings brought by pilgrims. But without land of their own, their lives were insecure. So they moved to Dakkili, in a thatched hut outside the village, hoping the government would allocate them land to build a house on. When the rain overflowed the reservoir near where they lived, the Eegas, including a newborn baby, moved to a nearby flat piece of ground where a construction company stores piles of sand and gravel. They sheltered from rain and sun under a tree.

As undocumented, unregistered internal migrants, effectively squatting on public land, the Eegas were initially not on the list of people in need. But people in Dakkili knew they were badly off and informed the local authorities. Staff and volunteers of the Indian Red Cross Society distributed aid to them and they now sleep under a tarpaulin stretched between short sticks.

“We’re grateful to the owner of the building supplies for letting us stay here,” said Palomma Eega. “We’re allowed to stay in exchange for providing security for the building materials. We want to return home but in the long run, we need land to build on.”