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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Kerala flooding death toll crosses 350

UAE leaders launch relief effort for south Indian state battered by more than 10 days of rain

People wait for aid next to makeshift raft at a flooded area in the southern state of Kerala, India. Reuters
People wait for aid next to makeshift raft at a flooded area in the southern state of Kerala, India. Reuters

The death toll from monsoon floods in Kerala reached 357 on Sunday, with hundreds of thousands made homeless and officials warning about outbreaks of disease.

The disaster prompted a response from the UAE, where a large section of the Indian expatriate population is from Kerala. The President, Sheikh Khalifa, formed an emergency committee led by the Emirates Red Crescent to organise relief assistance, while Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, said the UAE and the Indian community would unite to offer help.

"The people of Kerala have always been and are still part of our success story in the UAE. We have a special responsibility to help and support those affected," he wrote on Twitter.

As of Sunday, the Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation had collected Dh10 million for the aid effort, thanks to donations from Indian business leaders. Indian expatriates told The National of the suffering experienced by friends and relatives in Kerala, with some losing all their possessions and many stranded without food or water.

Residents of the state saw some respite on Sunday as the rains abated after more than 10 days of incessant torrential downpour, but not before another 33 lives were lost in the previous 24 hours, state officials said.

Authorities are now preparing for outbreaks of water-borne and air-borne diseases in relief camps, said a senior official in charge of disaster management at Kerala's health department.

North and central Kerala have been worst-hit by the floods, with the international airport in the main city of Kochi shut until at least August 26. The flooding, which officials said was the worst in almost a century, has damaged an estimated 10,000 kilometres of roads, halted rail traffic, disrupted electricity and water supply, and left tens of thousands of residents marooned.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi surveyed the devastation on Saturday and promised state officials more than 5 billion rupees (Dh263 million) in aid. The central government has already sent armed forces units with boats and helicopters to help with rescue and relief efforts.

Mr Modi said 38 helicopters had been deployed for search and rescue operations in the state, which has a population of more than 33 million. "We all pray for the safety and well-being of the people of Kerala," he said in a tweet.

Other states have also pitched in with rescue teams, food supplies and financial assistance, but local politicians said more was needed.

State chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said in tweet that he had asked Mr Modi for more helicopters and rescuers.

A state legislator, Saji Cherian, made a similar plea. "Please ask Modi to give us helicopters, give us helicopters. ... Please, please!" he told a Kerala-based TV news channel.

Kerala's disaster management office said on Saturday that at least 194 people had died in flooding since torrential rains began on August 8, and 36 more were missing.

The National Disaster Response Force said it had evacuated more than 10,000 people from flooded areas in its "biggest-ever disaster response operation" since it was formed in 2006.

Kerala has received 41 per cent more rain than normal so far this year, according to Met officials, with the official toll of related deaths at 324. More than 223,000 people have sought shelter in more than 1,500 relief camps, the chief minister's office said.

The rising floodwaters forced Dilara Gafoor and her family to move three times in two days last week.

Mrs Gafoor, 35, thought her home in Aluva, where she lived with her husband and three children, would be safe, as it was during flooding in 2013. In fact, 15 relatives had sought refuge with them by Wednesday morning.

“We did see water on both sides of the road outside our house, but we thought it was just rainwater clogging up the ditches," she told The National. "We didn’t know it was the [Periyar] river rising."

The 240-kilometre river, the longest in Kerala and an economic lifeline for the state, had swelled so much that it was nearly 7km wide.

By Wednesday afternoon, the authorities had issued evacuation warnings and the family decided to leave. Mrs Gafoor gathered the family's important documents and medicines and stored their belongings on the top shelves of cupboards before they sought higher ground in the nearby town of Neericode.

“I thought the water would only come into my house up to one or two feet,” she said. “But now I realise the entire ground floor will be flooded. All our things will be ruined. If we’d stayed there, we would have had to move to the first floor and wait for evacuation.”

Kerala Floods August 2018
Kerala Floods August 2018

The rising waters have trapped thousands of Keralites on rooftops or the higher floors of buildings.

At least 20 members of Arun Namboothiri’s family — including an eight-month old infant — have been stranded for more than two days on the first floor of their home outside Aluva.

“The water level rose really fast, I told them [my family] to gather some food and a gas stove and just go up,” Mr Namboothiri, a software engineer who lives in another town, told The National. The house had no electricity, so the family was conserving the charge on one cell phone for emergency calls.

Many of the navy’s boats are too big for the narrow lanes in residential areas, but on Friday a boat arrived to ferry three old women from a neighbouring building. The rescue team promised to return for Mr Namboothiri's family.

Where the roads have not been submerged, they have been wrecked by the pounding rain. Chandrakant Nair, a doctor, flew into the town of Kozhikode from Chennai on Thursday morning but struggled to get to his home in a village near Nilambur.

“I walked to the main road and waited for an hour,” he said. “Finally a bus came by with 200 people in it and I somehow squeezed in.”

It took three hours to travel just 40 kilometres. When the doctor reached Nilambur, he found that landslides had cut off parts of the town from the outside world.

“Finally, I took an auto rickshaw through a less-used route that ran through the jungle,” he said. “The journey home took five and a half hours. Normally it would have taken one or one and a half.”

Mrs Gafoor's family moved in with a cousin in Neericode but it was not long before even that house appeared under threat. They moved again to another house higher up the hill, where they spent Wednesday night. But still the water kept rising.

“My youngest is five years old, and I could see the fear in her eyes,” she said. “I was just shattered when she started crying. The roads were flooding. We didn’t know where to go next. We were panicking."

Finally, the family piled into three cars and began to drive through floodwater so high by now that it was lapping just below the windows. “We knew that if the car stopped even once, it wouldn’t start again,” she said. Outside, people were wading through chest-deep water and she could hear calls for help from those stranded in buildings.

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Read more:

Indian businessmen pledge millions of dirhams to UAE's relief campaign for flood-stricken Kerala

'Everything is lost': Indian expatriates in UAE speak of Kerala flood devastation

Flights from UAE to flood-hit Kerala are cancelled

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Then their car’s engine started to splutter and spew clouds of black smoke. “We thought that was it,” Mrs Gafoor said. But the convoy eventually made it through the worst of the flooding.

As of Saturday, Mrs Gafoor and her family were staying with her sister in Kochi, which has so far remained relatively unaffected by flooding. But with more rain forecast through the weekend, she worries about the fate of so many others across the state who are unable to leave their homes. “At least my family is safe,” she said.

“At the moment, I’m like a refugee,” she said. “Even after the water recedes, it will take so long to clear the trash from the house and make it liveable. It’ll be months before we can go back and live there again.”