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Rebuilding Kerala: Power cuts, damaged roads, destroyed houses and people fighting trauma

Kerala floods: The waters have receded, revealing the task ahead of Kerala to repair and rehabilitate. Vishnu Varma and Arun Janardhanan from worst-hit Idukki district, and Shaju Philip from Thiruvananthapuram take stock. 

Written by Vishnu Varma , Arun Janardhanan , Shaju Philip | Idukki, Thiruvananthapuram |
Updated: August 26, 2018 8:56:33 pm
kerala floods idukki cheruthoni dam Reconstruction work in progress at NH 185 near Kathipara in Idukki district. (Express Photo/Nirmal Harindran)

Power cuts, damaged roads, destroyed houses, and people fighting trauma. The waters have receded, revealing the task ahead of Kerala to repair and rehabilitate. Vishnu Varma and Arun Janardhanan from worst-hit Idukki district, and Shaju Philip from Thiruvananthapuram take stock.

Unlike the other districts of Kerala, it’s drizzling still in hilly Idukki. But the heavy rain of the first three weeks of August has given way to a trickle, and the area of the state that received one-third of its downpour (811 mm between August 14 and 17, 87 per cent above normal), 52 of its 242 deaths (the maximum for a district), and was left most ravaged due to landslides, has begun the long task of getting back on its feet. Read in Malayalam.

Also read | Tragedy is forgotten for a day, Kerala camps celebrate Onam

Also read | Stories from Vazhathope in Idukki district that has borne the brunt of the floods

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Damage: Total: 50 sub-stations, 16,158 transformers, 25.6 lakh connections hit; Idukki: Losses worth Rs 4.83 crore in power infrastructure

Around 5 km from the town of Adimali, a seven-member team of the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) is at work trying to restore power supply to Odakkacity village. Landslides swept through the village in the first week of August, plunging it into darkness. “Paranja theeratha nasha-nashtam aanu (There has been endless damage),” says Gopi, a permanent linesman with the KSEB.

Many people returning home from relief camps are finding it difficult to clean homes in the absence of power and water supply. At night, they light candles or kerosene lamps. They have also been unable to charge their phones or connect to the Internet or TV news to know what’s happening around them. Broadband Internet cables, routed through electricity poles, are down.

Vinod, a contractual labourer with the KSEB, says 60 poles have been partially or completely damaged in Odakkacity alone. “This is the fourth we are repairing today.”

Also read | Despite Srinagar, Chennai, Kerala, urban flooding unit yet to be set up

kerala floods idukki cheruthoni dam A worker fixes electricity cables in Idukki, where power and communication networks have been down since the floods. (Express Photo/Nirmal Harindran)

A senior KSEB engineer says the worst damage is in areas like Kulamavu, Adimali and Cheruthoni. “Many of our transformers are buried under mud. The biggest challenge is to reach areas affected by landslides. Revenue and PWD contractors are trying their best to get the roads cleared. Once they clear them, we will get power supply restored the next day,” says Sashankan, Deputy Chief Engineer, Thodupuzha.

Across the state, the KSEB puts the losses to its infrastructure at Rs 350 crore, apart from revenue losses of Rs 470 crore, having had to suspend operations at five general centres and 28 sub-stations after the flood.

A vehicle left behind after a two-storied building collapsed in a landslide at Odakka city. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

KSEB chairman N S Pillai says the board has mobilised work force from the non-affected eight districts to finish the work. “The Telangana electricity board has sent 120 skilled staff. We have also pooled together technicians from Kerala. Tamil Nadu has offered help, but due to waterlogging in many areas, we have not been able to use their services so far. NTPC and Power Grid have offered help, but this is yet to reach us.”

Also read | No jobs, relief camps closing, scores of migrant workers leave for home

As there is risk of electrocution in houses that have remained under water, the KSEB is also putting together a pool of engineering students as well as electrical diploma holders to inspect power network in houses.

By August 24, the board had restored 23.36 of the 25.60 lakh connections, repaired 41 of the 50 defunct sub-stations, and connected 14,314 of the 16,158 transformers back to the distribution network.

Pillai is confident that within three days, they would restore power in all the areas where waterlogging and road network do not pose hurdles.

kerala floods idukki cheruthoni dam The government high school in Adimali serves as a relief camp, along with a dozen others in the district. (Express Photo/Nirmal Harindran)

DAMAGE: Total: 11,000 km of roads, 237 bridges hit (initial estimate); Idukki: 1,145 km of 2,886 km of roads under PWD damaged, losses Rs 3,000 cr

At Kathipara, a village 5 km from Adimali and en route to the tourist hill station of Munnar, three earth-moving machines are at work on NH185, clearing mud and stones. The rain on August 14 night had brought down a nearby hill, washing away a large section of the highway and two homes along with it. The residents got saved as they had moved the night before to relief camps due to the danger of landslides.

Apart from NH185, which is a crucial link to the higher areas of Idukki, work is on to restore nearly a hundred arterial roads, as well as other national highways such as NH183A. John, an assistant operator with a JCB machine at work on a road to Kathipara, says all the available earth-moving machines in Adimali have been pressed into service.

Rebuilding landslide affected area in Idukki, Kerala. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

By Friday, the district administration and National Disaster Response Force had managed to make the stretch from Adimali to Thodupuzha operational for light vehicles, while work was on to start the Idukki-Ernakulam road. “We are laying stones and stone powder on portions that could be used for light vehicles,” a revenue official said.

While the landslide came on August 14, inclement weather meant work could be started only by August 20, when an Army team including five engineers and a Major pitched in. “The soil is very loose, so it kept slipping. The Army officers took stock and gave a plan,” says John.

Also read | Many bodies trapped in landslides not retrieved; desperate for food, clothes for women: Idukki MP

Major Ashish Upadhyay says his team’s focus was to make temporary arrangements for vehicular traffic through the damaged road sections. “Bringing the roads back to their original condition in Idukki will require massive manpower and will take at least a month’s time,” he says, while adding that the landslides were not surprising given the amount of loose soil and the poor drainage system at many places.

kerala floods idukki Cheruthoni dam Along the Cheruthoni river only battered remains can now be seen. (Express Photo/Arun Janardhanan)

Idukki MP Joice George told The Sunday Express their first priority was to restore minimum connectivity on all key roads, agreeing with the Major on the time and effort needed. “We are trying to ensure at least the movement of light vehicles as it is practically impossible to rebuild fully damaged roads in many parts,” he says.

Idukki Collector K Jeevan Babu says two major bridges in Idukki, at Cheruthoni and on the Munnar-Marayur road, are posing a major challenge. “We cannot rebuild these with the available facilities. We have asked officials to survey the structures and send a proposal to the Army for Bailey bridge (pre-fabricated portable) structures,” he says.

Giving an idea of the overall work, Kerala Public Works Minister G Sudhakaran says, “The government has sanctioned Rs 2,000 crore for road work. Tenders would be invited as per Assembly constituencies. Our estimate shows 11,000-km roads under the state PWD and another 3,000 km of national highways have been damaged.”

The damage is particularly striking for Kerala as it has an extensive road network, down to villages, thanks to a People’s Planning Campaign of 1996, transferring the control of over 35 per cent of the development budget to local authorities, with people of the area implementing the projects based on their needs. As of 2016-17, 69.79 per cent of the roads in the state were maintained by panchayats, while the stake of the PWD was just 14.54 per cent, and that of its national highway wing only 0.82 per cent.

DAMAGE: Total: Houses damaged 7,000, partially damaged 50,000, losses amounting to Rs 20,000 crore; IDUKKI: 2,000 structures hit

Around 2.30 am-3 am on August 8-9 night, remembers Sudheer K H, he, his wife Hajira and their two sons, residents of Ettumuri near Adimali town, were shaken awake by a huge sound, followed by the alarm of a car going off. He rushed out of his tiny home, located along NH185, to find his ancestral house, on the other side of the road, flattened by a landslide.

Sudheer says his family, helped by locals, searched all night for his relatives buried inside, by the help of his cellphone’s weak torchlight, ignoring the rain. They were able to extricate his maternal uncle Hassankutty and a distant relative, Sainuddin. But it was only after dawn broke and rescue personnel came that they found the bodies of the five who didn’t make it, including two children. “Just like that, a part of our life was taken away,” says Hajira.

Hassankutty and Sainuddin are still in hospital. Hassankutty, who had to undergo a knee surgery, says briefly, before closing his eyes, “My family grew up in that house. Not a single stone fell on it all these years.”

Read | The river by my home

Kerala floods idukki cheruthoni dam The bridge over the river collapsed when the shutters of the dam were opened. (Express Photo/Arun Janardhanan)

Just a kilometre away, Jayadevan, a 57-year-old farmer, marvels at the fact that the August 14 landslide spared his single-storey home located on the edge of a cliff. It hit a part of his cowshed, but 15 of his 16 cows escaped, tore apart the concrete road leading to his home and uprooted dozens of trees on his five-acre farmland. But it spared his home and the lives of his wife and son.

While he argues that farmers like him in the high-range areas have to be ready for “rainfall damage”, wife Sindhu is not sure any more. “At least in the monsoon, I feel we should shift to someplace safer,” she says.

A damaged road towards Odakka city in Idukki. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

Initial estimates from the district, with a population of 11 lakh as per the 2011 Census, show at least 161 properties, including houses, are buried under landslides while 400 houses are completely destroyed. Additionally, 1,600 houses are estimated to be partially damaged.

Also read | Not just Kerala, no scientific dam water management across India: Secy, Earth Sciences

Collector Babu says Revenue and Panchayat officials are doing a survey of the damage, before “the next step of rebuilding and rehabilitation”. He adds that the government is also considering moving people in relief camps to temporary housing facilities. “Auditoriums and community halls are being prepared to shelter people till we can provide permanent shelters.”

Across the state, 8.69 lakh people are still in relief camps.

Minister A C Moitheen, overseeing relief and rehabilitation in Ernakulam district, says apart from the relief camps, they are also ensuring distribution of provisions to those who have returned home. “Local civic bodies have been asked to spend money from their own plan funds to meet the expenses of cleaning,” he adds, saying they will bring all this under the MGNREGA.

Pathanamthitta District Collector P B Nooh says the work can’t be managed without volunteers. “The flood has deposited slurry to a height of 5-6 feet. Families alone can’t clear that,” he says.

Kerala floods: State considers interest-free loans for traders Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan visits flood-hit areas in Wayanad. (PTI Photo)

DAMAGE: Total: Agriculture, health impact still being assessed; Idukki: Rs 57.28 cr worth losses on 10,340 hectares land

Once the immediate work on restoring power, connectivity and providing shelter has been achieved, officials expect to have a better idea of losses to the agriculture sector. Idukki has cardamom, pepper, tea and fruit plantations, apart from vegetable fields.

The destruction largely spared schools, and the district education department has started work on repairing the two that were hit, in Mukkudam and Anaviratti. “The Munnar government college is also in a bad shape. The structure may need reconstruction,” says a senior Education Department officer preferring anonymity.

What Idukki may be spared is epidemics, as unlike other areas, the problem here is not of stagnant water. Collector Babu says the local network of health workers has reached out to almost all areas.

Across the state, medical teams comprising physicians, nurses, nursing assistants, pharmacists have been deployed at all camps, with 2,067 such teams at work on Saturday. A junior health inspector has also been posted at camps, with the district medical officer overall in-charge. “The size of the teams depends on the number of inmates in a camp. We have appointed up to 10 doctors in big camps. A few diarrhoea cases were reported in camps in Pathanamthitta district, but they were not concentrated in any one place,” an official says.

At only one place still, the tribal Edamalakkudy, the Army is helping out.

As flood-hit people return to devastated homes, the Health Department is also organising counselling. Health Minister K K Shylaja says Friday onwards, 3,200 trained counsellors had branched out across Kerala. “In developed countries, there have been effective interventions in the form of post-traumatic counselling of affected people.” We are also working on those lines. NIMHANS in Bangalore has offered help,” she says.

Man pours water out of flooded home When people returned to Chengannur. (Express Photo/Vignesh Krishnamoorthy)


For a little while though on Saturday, Kerala was able to set all this aside.

The local administration had distributed kits containing rice, sugar, flour, clothes to people for Onam, and the eight lakh people in relief camps joined others in marking the festival with a sadya or the traditional meal, making flower beds, and singing songs.

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