ON TUESDAY, outside the Kochi airport’s administrative block, officials rushed sofas to the departure section of the domestic terminal. They were on a tight deadline. After multiple reschedules, the flood-hit airport had announced that it would reopen at 2 pm Wednesday. “We don’t know what we would have done without them… Jaldi karo, jaldi (Do it fast, hurry),” an official said, while urging two workers, from the migrant labour force that forms the backbone of Kerala’s economy, to carry a sofa inside.
On August 15, after a series of flood alerts were issued, furniture was being rushed to the upper floors of this block when the Periyar river flowing nearby surged inside the compound. Overnight, the water swallowed the world’s first fully solar-powered airport, shutting the facility down. “Water reached four meters high at some places. We had been pumping water out since August 10 but since the Cheruthoni and Idamalayar dams were opened together on August 15, it was too much to take,” Jayan P S, public relations officer, Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL), told The Indian Express.
The first to go were the boundary walls. Of the 10-km perimeter, around 2.5 km gave way to the fast current. Water flowed to quickly cover the runway, the taxiway and gushed into the lower terminal. The solar system was damaged. Vehicles, including those of passengers, parked in the premises were damaged. An Air India aircraft lay on the taxiway. The damage, according to official estimates: Nearly Rs 300 crore.
“The runway had become the river. It drowned our substation, all generators, and systems,” Jayan said. For three days, the airport suspended all activity. “None of us officials could even go to the airport to hold meetings. Finally, on August 20, there was some respite and we could start planning our way forward,” the official said. The runway had not been seriously affected and the damaged boundary wall was temporarily fixed using metal sheets. But the airport had lost the utility of four conveyor belts, 22 x-ray machines and almost all power generation systems. Around 800 runway lights had to be tested before they were switched on.
However, the airport’s unique public-private partnership ensured that funds and resources were within reach, Jayan said. “We engaged around 300 to 400 workers for the clean-up operations. Equipment was brought in from Bengaluru and the taxiway was recarpeted using milling machines from Tamil Nadu. Each light on the runway was extracted and tested,” said Jayan.
Within days, the sanitation work was completed and the airport received approvals from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to reopen on August 26. “But both we and the airlines lacked adequate ground staff, many of whom were affected by the floods. Most of them were from around here and they were busy cleaning their own homes,” Jayan said. The reopening date was then reset to August 29. “We will soon commission surveys in the area to prepare plans should such floods ever visit it again. But there is no way to stop such floods and the reaction would likely be the same,” the official said.
Since August 8, heavy rain and floods in Kerala claimed 322 lives, with at least 3.42 lakh people still in relief camps across the state. Before the shutdown, the airport was the seventh largest airport in the country in terms of passenger traffic for 2017-18: A footfall of more than 10 million flyers. In terms of international passenger traffic, it was the fourth largest in the country after Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. On Tuesday, the facility’s power systems — the airport went fully solar three years ago — were being repaired with half of its 40 MW capacity in use. Airport staff were being fed at the restaurants on the premises.
“We suffered a loss of Rs 21 lakh in goods alone,” Paulcy James, manager of Anna Cafe, which operates inside the facility, said. “More, if you count the sales from the days lost and the two units in the terminals. But now we are ready for tomorrow, when we start again.”