As Kerala struggles to find its feet after the devastating floods, the ground zero of the deluge in Idukki district is still coming to terms with a grim set of numbers: 52 dead, 7 missing, 400 houses gone and at least 1,000 more residences urgently in need of repair or reconstruction.
At Upputhodu, near Cheruthoni where shutters of a dam was opened after 26 years on August 9, the horror of the calamity is captured on the tired face of G Wilson, a farmer. Wilson’s neighbours — a family of three and a guest — were killed in a heavy landslide on August 17. One of the bodies is yet to be traced.
The victims were Mathew (60), a retired bank employee, his wife Rajamma (55), a retired creche teacher, and their son Vishal (26), who worked for a private firm in Kochi. Vishal’s friend Dint (26), who was previously employed in the Gulf, was also buried under the pile of rocks, sand and water.
“The landslide hit around 9.30 pm, minutes after they had reached home. They had spent the day at the relief camp in the village to cook and serve food for those affected by the floods. Dint joined them as the relief camp had only limited facilities,” says Wilson.
The bodies of Mathew, Vishal and Dint were retrieved over the last week, Rajamma’s body is still missing. “We traced Mathew’s body to the foothills. Due to the heavy floods, we tied the body to a tree with bedsheets,” says Wilson.
It was a “narrow escape” for Wilson and his family. “We were spared by a few metres. Hearing the sound of the landslide, my wife ran to me saying it might have been a helicopter crash as we were watching the news on our mobile phones about people being rescued in choppers. Then, there was a louder sound and our house shook. I ran out and saw that Mathew’s house had completely disappeared. Everyone in my house ran to another compound nearby while I escaped through another route with my aged father,” he says.
“Along with the other houses, a road to my house was washed off, too. Luckily, there were no people in the two other houses that got buried,” says Wilson.
The Upputhode church was busy running a relief camp with 200 people when the landslide happened. “Hearing the noise, the church rang its bell repeatedly to alert people who ran to the site using the light of their cellphone screens,” says Wilson.
On Thursday, as many parts of the district remained cut off with bodies of several of those feared dead yet to be retrieved, a group of policemen and local residents working to remove a roadblock near Cheruthoni town found a body under the mud. The victim is yet to be identified.
According to officials, Idukki’s death toll in the floods is the most for a district since August 8 – the total number of dead across the state thereafter has reached 242. With relief efforts underway, Kerala Electricity Minister M M Mani, who hails from Idukki, said the state government is planning to rehabilitate people in vacant government buildings.
“The panchayats have also been asked to make buildings available on rent for those who lost their houses. The government will provide compensation of Rs 10 lakh each to those who lost both land and houses, and Rs 4 lakh each to those who lost houses,” he said.
Mani said a request has been sent to the government to approach the Army for constructing portable, pre-fabricated Bailey bridges to restore connectivity, including the Idukki-Cheruthoni and Periyavara bridges on the Munnar-Udumalpet route. Officials said at least 1,145 km of roads have been destroyed in Idukki district alone, apart from several bridges.