Kerala floods: many thousands await rescue as downpour continues

Michael Safi and Kakoli Bhattacharya in Delhi
A truck carries people through floodwaters in Thrissur, Kerala. Photograph: AP

More than 350 people have died in the southern Indian state of Kerala in the worst flooding in nearly a century, with heavy rain predicted to continue for at least the next two days.

“Since 29 May, when the monsoon starts in Kerala, a total of 357 people have lost their lives until now,” a statement from the state’s information officer said on Sunday.

More than 220 people have died after rains intensified in the past 11 days and flooded almost every district in the state.

Authorities said damage to infrastructure was expected to come to $3bn. Roads and 134 bridges have suffered damage, isolating remote areas in the hilly districts of the state which are worst affected.

With more than 680,000 people sheltering in relief camps and thousands of others on high ground in areas cut off by floods, supplying food, medicine and clean water is a growing challenge for authorities.

Volunteers and rescue workers evacuate residents from the Ernakulam district. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Rescuers were still to reach some parts of the state on Saturday, and about 10,000 people were thought to be stranded on rooftops or the upper floors of homes.

Among them were the family of Shrinni, a resident of the central town of Ranni, who fled their home to a relative’s on higher ground but still found themselves in danger. “It’s a four-storey house, but water started pouring in fast until it reached the second floor and stayed that way for two days,” she said.

“My relatives shifted to the top floor with all the stuff they immediately needed. An airlift came, but my 85-year-old grandmother had never taken a flight in her life and she was afraid to go. So the whole family stayed back. On Friday, rescuers came with motorboats and shifted them to a safe place.”

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, flew over some of the flooded areas on Saturday and pledged an additional £56m in financial assistance and compensation for the families of the dead. “The nation stands firmly with Kerala in this hour,” he tweeted.

More than 82,000 rescue operations were mounted on Friday by the Indian military, disaster management teams and volunteer workers including fishermen. Their efforts were hampered, however, by incessant rain, which has limited their work to daylight hours.

Authorities have called for extra food, water and medicines to supply more than 1,500 relief camps that have sprung up around the state.

“The camps are very crowded,” said Jayakiran, a volunteer rescue worker in Cochin who had just returned from touring two camps near the city.

“We are collecting food such as rice but also hygienic materials such as sanitary napkins and nappies, because there is always a fear of diseases breaking out.”

Intense rainy seasons are an annual phenomenon in Kerala, which lies in the path of the south-west monsoon that provides India with 70% of its annual rainfall in a four-month period. When the downpours began earlier this month, state authorities initially assured people that the situation was under control.

They appear to have been caught by surprise, however, and then overwhelmed by the prolonged intensity of rainfall more than two-and-a-half times heavier than usual in the week to 15 August and 457% more than average in the worst-hit district of Idduki.

The last road into Chengannurin central Kerala disappeared before the eyes of officials sent to inspect the area on Friday evening, leaving about 50,000 people trapped inside the town.

A navy helicopter airlifts a couple to safety. Photograph: Sivaram V/Reuters

One resident used social media to broadcast the fact that he was trapped neck-deep in water on the first floor of his home. “It looks like water is rising to the second floor,” he said in the footage, which went viral. “I hope you can see this. Please pray for us.”

The family of Rijo Varghese and six others from their neighbourhood were also trapped inside their two-storey home in the town.

“I got a call from them on Friday, saying the water was rising immediately,” he said. “We got afraid, we panicked, we tried calling their neighbours but the whole area was frozen, I couldn’t communicate with any of them.”

Varghese’s family and the others took shelter on the roof of their home until Saturday morning, when fishermen arrived to move them to higher ground inside the town.

The MP for Chengannur broke down on live TV during an interview on Friday while begging authorities to help his town.

“Please send helicopters here,” Saji Cheriyan said. “Please tell someone, please can you tell Modi. If helicopters are not brought in for rescue operations, we will die. Fifty thousand people will die. I am begging for your mercy, please help us.”

Vijayan said on Saturday that four helicopters, 400 soldiers and 70 boats had been deployed in the area.

The World Bank said in a report earlier this year that south Asian cities were becoming increasingly vulnerable to flooding as a result of changing rainfall patterns and increasing average temperatures.

More than 1,000 people across the subcontinent were killed and 41 million affected by severe floods last year, most in the state of Bihar.