AROUND 8 PM Thursday, when Thankamani heard a booming sound, she knew the hill was coming down. Seconds later, mud, trees and boulders swept down along the two sides of her home. All night, she held on to her husband Velayudhan, as torrential rain pounded their village.
On Friday morning, she stepped out. The neighborhood of around a dozen homes had disappeared. The landslide had wiped out everything — except for her home, a small temple and a clump of arecanut trees in the centre. All around were layers of muddy, brown soil.
By Sunday, 50 people remained missing from Kavalappara in Kerala’s Malappuram district, and 13 bodies had been retrieved by rescuers, including teams from National Disaster Response Force, Madras Regiment and state government, and local volunteers.
“Everyone thought we were dead. We didn’t think we would survive, either. If we were dying anyway, I wanted us to go together. But God saved us,” said Thankamani, 49.
The rains appear to have eased but the official death toll from this month’s floods in Kerala, mainly in the northern districts of Malappuram and Wayanad, has risen to 72. Officials said as many as 2.51 lakh people from 73,076 families have been shifted to relief camps.
“Everyone is helpless before this tragedy,’’ said State Minister K T Jaleel, who is overseeing rescue operations in Malappuram.
On the landslide in Kavalappara, he said: “Bodies are buried 50 feet down as earth from the hill has levelled an entire valley of habitation. The rescue teams have to dig deep to reach each house. Today, we searched the upper side of the valley, where we spotted houses under a few feet.”
In the village, debris can be seen as far as half-a-kilometre ahead, burying acres of arecanut plantations. The concrete road leading to Thankamani’s house has disappeared.
“We were rescued with great difficulty by some men who came from the other side of a rivulet looking for survivors. When they called out, I shouted back. Somehow, we made it. But I couldn’t take my goats or any of our belongings,” she said.
“The debris is 10-12 feet high and some bodies may be at the bottom. Forget survivors, it’s so tough to even retrieve the bodies,” said Ansar Ali, 35, a member of a rescue team affiliated to the Jamaat-e-Islami.
“We were told by some residents that there could be a few bodies at a spot where a house stood. We began digging with iron rods and pitchforks. Soon, we could smell the decay. After digging about five feet, we found the body of a young girl,” said Ali.
On Sunday, two earth movers were deployed to move the sludge as rescuers used electric cutters to slice broken arecanut trees. Police put up barricades to restrict vehicular movement and officials dismantled the power lines. There was also a steady stream of cars and trucks carrying food, clothes and essential items to relief camps.
“We had always wanted to live in our own house. So my husband worked as a daily wager and I looked after our cows, goats and hens. We were able to buy a small 5-cent plot and built a house with the savings. Now it’s impossible for us to do that again. My husband underwent a heart surgery recently and is unable to walk. We don’t have any children,” said Thankamani. “Now I think, maybe, it was better to die that night.”
In Wayanad, meanwhile, eight persons are still missing from another landslide at a tea estate settlement in Puthumala, where 10 bodies have been retrieved. Around 3,000 people, who were stranded on the other side of the village, have been rescued.
Elsewhere in the state, the situation eased as water receded in river basins and low-laying areas. After a three-day break, flight operations resumed at the Cochin International Airport.
On Sunday, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress MP from Wayanad, visited the landslide site and relief camps in parts of Malappuram that fall under his constituency. On Monday, he is expected to visit other affected areas in Wayanad.