Updated: Apr 4
“Compassion is an extremely valuable virtue for the survival of our species. Our experience showed us that only mutual care and support can help us overcome adversities and not the instinct to selfishly secure limited resources. ”
A Fateful Independence Day
In the past, whenever I have watched news on natural disasters around the world, I have felt sad and bad for the affected people, but I had never thought that it could ever happen to me!
Most of us, humans, tend to take things for granted, especially our safety, health and relationships. Our life is usually rushed, always seeking something- materialistic, intellectual or spiritual- one after the other! Not to blame anyone, life is such these days! But what when something shows you that whatever you think is yours doesn't belong to you- your wealth, name and fame? What when you realize that all that is worth in this lifetime is humanity and love for each other?
The 15th of August this year would have passed off as yet another Indian independence day or yet another rainy monsoon day in Kerala, a beautiful green state in the southernmost part of India. Little did we realize that it was going to be a fateful day! I was packing bags to get ready for our flight back to Singapore that night after a vacation with family at my hometown in Kerala, Aluva.
It was raining cats and dogs since morning, and by noon we got news that the Cochin international airport is shutting down due to flooding of the runway. Though we were disappointed at the change in plans, we presumed that the airport would start operations in a day or two when the rain stops.
My parents' house is a two storey building. I was mostly upstairs that day ironing, packing and resting. When I came down in the evening, I saw my mom and grandma excitedly calling out to our kids to show water flowing in front of our gates. They thought it's so cool that kids are getting to see something like this!! I couldn't be as amused, nevertheless dismissed it as nobody looked alarmed and kids were highly excited!
An hour later, water started coming into our front yard through the gates. At this point, my husband Ashwin said as that we should move out as a precaution. His younger brother stays a short distance away at an elevated part of town which seemed to be a safe place to go to. However, my folks were reluctant to move as there never was a case of flooding in the sixty five years they have been here! They were convinced of their decision as none of our neighbours had moved out either.
I worried about the safety of our kids and mentioned to Ashwin that we must at least get them out to safety. However, Ashwin said, "if we evacuate, we evacuate together!" (He used to be a sailor and probably it was the Captain in him speaking to his fellow mates).
Though I felt proud of my husband's concern and love for my family, I couldn't hide my fear about the rising water levels. I could barely eat dinner. By 8pm water came in through the gate, flooding our front and backyards as well as a low lying room in our home. It was too late to take the car out as the water level had risen considerably. Also it looked unsafe to step out in the water in the dark (flood waters are said to carry snakes and harmful debris). So we decided to wait the night out.
Ashwin noticed my tension and reassured me that all will be well until next morning and that we will evacuate at the first opportunity. He made some arrangements for all of us to live on the first floor, such as hooking up a cooking stove, moving some eatables, filling the water tank, keeping the inverter battery elevated etc.
However, I couldn't sleep that night! I worried that if water levels rose too fast we would be trapped inside. By mid-night we had about three feet water in the ground floor. We do not have open balconies or terrace in our house, eliminating chances of being airlifted for rescue. I was also concerned that at a time of emergency, rescue efforts can get overwhelmed and it may get difficult to reach out for rescue. During the night, power went off which made it a truly dark, cold and terrifying night!
Ashwin and my dad were the most practical of the lot, who slept through in order to rest and conserve energy for the next day. I tried to wile away time thinking of ways to escape first thing in the morning. Later I saw that my mom and grandparents were also awake and worried.
Strategies for escape on a cold-flooded morning
Around 5am, water levels were rising faster. Thankfully and coincidentally an old friend of mine, Vidya, who lived on an elevated part of town messaged me to check on us. I told her of the situation and she encouraged me to dial helpline numbers. Mom and I started dialing those numbers and after many attempts, one number worked. The person at the other end noted our address, but said it may take time. I felt desperate and made a facebook post to inform my contacts of our situation and get help. I got calls from some friends who said they will try to contact the navy to rescue us.
Meanwhile Vidya's husband Jayasankar*, called up to say that if we can get out of the house and reach to a dry point on main road ( about a kilometre away), he would wait there with his car and take us home. The challenge however was the risk of wading through cold, flooded waters which were like little gorging rivers. However, my intuition told me to take this risk rather than wait for rescue efforts to reach, as the water levels were now rising significantly.
So, the decision was made and quick strategies were chalked out. Ashwin and I decided to brave the floods first. Ashwin said he could carry little Shiv (4 years) on his shoulders. He would then come back and do the same with older son Madhav (7 years) and my mom. Meanwhile we hoped to send rescue boats to get my grandparents and dad out.
We quickly packed a change of clothes each for us and sealed it well in a plastic bag. With the instinct of a mom I threw in a pack of biscuits for Shiv (what if we couldn't meet Jayashanker and had to go to a relief camp). It was tough for me to leave behind one child, parents and grandparents. However, that was no time to be gripped by emotions. I told Madhav to remain calm and brave until Ashwin comes back. I told my folks to stay strong and that we will all be rescued.
We put on thick clothing and covered heads with plastic bags as it was still raining. We stepped into our flooded ground floor. The water was very cold! It was disheartening to see the furnitures and fridge floating in the water. With a heavy heart we said goodbye and waded through waist-deep water one step at a time.
The water level rose to the level of my chest on the next road. Shiv was calm and followed instructions to bend down to avoid low tree branches. Mid-way through the flooded sub-roads, we met some rescue workers, mostly civilians. I cannot express the relief I felt! They instructed us to walk through the middle of the road and a little later we met with few locals and couple of army men who were moving large vehicle tyres as makeshift boats for rescue. We directed them to our house to rescue our folks as well as neighbours. We then walked out of the flooded roads to a higher point where Jayasankar was waiting for us amidst a crowd of people. Myself and Shiv joined Jayasankar to head to his home, while Ashwin went back to rescue the others.
Warm blanket of humanity in cold floods of distress
Vidya and their younger son, Shyam, greeted us with a warm smile and a cup of hot tea at their residence. They already had two other families taking refuge in their apartment. After shower, Shiv and I ate the breakfast Vidya had prepared. For once I realized the true value of friendship, food & a safe shelter. I was ecstatic when an hour later Madhav, my parents and grandparents joined us at Vidya's & Jayasankar's place. I was very relieved to hear that Madhav was calm throughout. He in fact told me that he found the rescue supercool!
Ashwin had gone back to join the rescue team. Though I worried momentarily about his safety, I felt really proud of him and was happy that he would be able to rescue many like us who were trapped in flooded houses. He got back after 4-5 hours and told us of stories of their rescue efforts, of people reluctant to come out, of helpless animals still in cages or tied up. He also confirmed that our decision to brave the floods was timely as the water levels had risen to the level of his face in those 5 hours after we escaped.
The way people were helping each other in times of distress was heartening to see. At a time when we left all our belongings, I realized that nothing really belongs to us. It only takes an act of nature to wipe it all out. What remains for those who survive is only the warmth of humanity!
At our friends' place, we all lived for three days happily, like a big joint family, despite the lack of electricity majority of the time. Vidya worked hard to feed all of us- around 18 people- and she and Jayasanker slept on the floor, giving up their beds for the elderly and children. Soon my mom and the rest of us started chipping in to do the chores and there was excellent division of labour.
Jayasankar stepped out frequently to find means to get milk and other provisions as well as check with relief camps nearby if they needed help. Their friendly neighbours at Periyar View Apartments kept sending in food, especially an aunty and uncle next door. Another neighbour offered to take us to their parents' home where there was enough water to wash clothes. Our kids were very happy as they made friends with the rest of the kids and they were playing most of the time making paper planes and boats like good old times.
All this while we kept ourselves positive through gratitude for our timely escape towards safety and for wonderful friends who helped us with the rescue and provided us with shelter and food. A friend of Vidya's staying with us with her 5 year old daughter waited three days for her husband and parents to be airlifted from the rooftop of their flooded house!!!
The devastation and trauma that the floods brought into previously considered safe and beautiful regions in Kerala is huge. However, the floods also brought in fresh new perspectives towards life for us!
First, nature is the ultimate equalizer, as everyone- irrespective of wealth, power, gender or age- is equally vulnerable to the forces of nature.
Second, what we actually consider valuable and precious at the moment can be taken away in no time and the only priceless thing we have in reality are our relationships.
Third, leadership during crisis is the ability to quickly assess risks and make a decision with a bigger picture in mind.
Lastly, but most importantly, compassion is an extremely valuable virtue for the survival of our species. Our experience showed us that only mutual care and support can help us overcome adversities and not the instinct to selfishly secure limited resources.
When the waters receded and we finally left Vidya's home, everyone broke into tears. Such was the bond created between us!!!
*Dr. Jayasankar Neelakantan, IRS, is the Commissioner of Income Tax, overseeing 4 divisions in Kerala. We had the privilege of meeting him, his wife Vidya and older son Ashwin at Buffalo, NY, when we both (Jayasankar & myself) were doing our PhDs at The State University of New York at Buffalo (2001-2005). It was purely a coincidence that Vidya contacted me during the flood situation through a mutual friend, Dr. Prince Xavier! We met after nearly a decade!!