It seemed to happen in an instant. One night last August, Philip M.J. was speaking with his wife, Lissy Das, swapping stories, talking about the children, praying. The next, before he could react, Lissy was swept away right before his eyes.
Lissy died in a landslide in the village of Tinoor in the Thamarassery district of northern Kerala. A few months later, Philip remains in shock and traumatized.
“It had been raining heavily for three days,” he recalls. “There was a sense of foreboding. When we prayed that night, we were scared. We said to each other, ‘Let’s just leave everything to God.’ ”
Later that night, Philip and Lissy were awakened by what sounded like a howling wind. Philip thought of making his way out to see what was going on. But he had no chance. “Out of nowhere, mud and boulders smashed through the house,” he says. “The force carried Lissy out, along with the bed. That was it.”
Lissy’s body was found two days later, a mile from her home.
Philip had tried to make his way out, but the mud had blocked all the exits, leaving him buried under the rubble. “I tried desperately to call out for help. None came,” he says. “So I used my fingers and nails to scrape myself out. It was a will to survive.”
Philip shows us his hands. His fingers and fingernails are rotten, the tips of his fingers blackened from the effort to make it out alive. There are bruises on his arms. He has a dislocated shoulder. Three months on, his body has not yet healed.
“Lissy and I both could have been dead. But I am still here. This is God’s grace.”
When he smiles, Philip looks younger than his 53 years. His eyes light up when he talks about his children — a 23-year-old son and a 21-year-old daughter, both studying in college. “Fortunately, the college is funding their education now,” he says. “There’s no way I can work and support them.”
Philip’s relatives have been kind enough to put him up, giving him a place to live until he can rebuild.
Through all this, Philip’s faith remains strong. “God saved me for my children. There was no other reason for me to survive,” he says. “I have to get my daughter married yet.”
Joshna Martin was Philip’s neighbor. Her husband, who works in the Middle East, had left for the Persian Gulf four days prior. Mrs. Martin was alone at home with her 2-year-old daughter, Alphonsa.
“My daughter is so precious because she came along after years of trying,” she says.
On the evening of 8 August, Mrs. Martin had a feeling that something bad was about to happen. “It was an intuition thing,” she recounts. So she decided to take her daughter to her parents’ home in a nearby village.
“I took my jewelry, money and my motorbike and left at about 7 p.m.,” she says. “I just didn’t feel it was safe to stay,” she says. Around 11:30, the landslide completely destroyed her house.
“Can you imagine if my daughter and I had been there? This was a miracle amid all that was unfortunate about that night.”
Mrs. Martin and her daughter now live with another family. “The owner of the house allowed us to live rent-free because none of us could afford to pay rent,” she says. She moved out of her parents’ home because there was no Wi-Fi service there and she wants her daughter to be able to Facetime her father every day.
The other family sharing the house has special needs: 52-year-old Jose Vattakunnel and his 50-year-old wife, Alice Jose. Mr. Vattakunnel is paralyzed from the waist down; he had fallen off a tree while picking coconuts some 20 years ago.
“We were sleeping,” he says of that evening last August. “Then we heard a sound. It was as if the sky was falling. We couldn’t identify what it was.”
The couple was trapped in their house by the mudslide. “The fact that Jose is paralyzed means we had to wait for people to come and lift him out in a chair,” his wife says. “Roads were blocked, people were screaming and shouting, it was raining heavily,” she says. “It took hours for help to arrive.”
Mr. Vattakunnel, meanwhile, felt helpless.
“I said to Alice to leave me there to die and save her own life,” he says.
His wife would have none of it.
“‘In sickness and in health,’” she recites. “How could I ever forget that?”
The pair has three children — two sons who both work in the Gulf and a daughter who has recently married, but lives nearby in another village.
“We will never go back to Tinoor. The government has said the place isn’t safe to reside,” Mrs. Vattakunnel says.
Both Mrs. Martin and Mrs. Vattakunnel are happy to have each other for company. As for Jose, little Alphonsa keeps him busy as she plays with him all day.
Such outcomes encourage the Rev. George Chemparathy. “It is amazing to see that even in the toughest of times, people don’t lose faith. They remain faithful,” he says.
The assistant director at the Centre for Overall Development for the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Thamarassery, Father Chemparathy is responsible for visiting those impacted by natural disasters, such as the floods and landslides of the last few years. With the help of the parish priest, the Rev. Matthew Thakidiyel, Father Chemparathy checks on parishioners even after they have moved, offering not just financial aid, but also emotional and spiritual support.
“In the village of Tinoor, children have needed counseling. They wake up in the middle of the night crying that something is going to happen. But the church is helping them to cope.”
In 2019, at least 121 people in Kerala died as the state faced devastating rains, floods and landslides for the second straight year. More than half a million people in the state were forced to evacuate their homes. The number of dead in 2018 was nearly 500; the damage to property and people was estimated at $5.8 billion. The United Nations General Assembly announced solidarity with India as the floods wreaked havoc in Kerala.
An Indian government report put the unprecedented rain down to the impact of climate change. The report also says Kerala should be prepared for more similar events in the future.
According to Viju B. — metro editor of the Times of India in Cochin, whose book, “Flood and Fury: Ecological Devastation in the Western Ghats” investigates the causes of the floods — the reason for floods and landslides in Kerala is simple: human interference.
“It’s down to cutting off the hills to construct roads, coffee plantations and houses, [as well as] quarrying and mining. Yes, climate change is a factor,” he adds, “but gross neglect of the environment can’t be ignored either.”
In a report that came out 17 months before the state’s 2018 floods, the Kerala Forest Research Institute warned of the devastation that could be caused by excessive rain. This report estimated that there are about 6,000 quarries in the state. Most are close to drainage networks and near epicenters of earthquakes recorded in the past.
“Quarries destroy much of the ecosystem around them. In hilly areas, which make up half of Kerala, they destabilize fragile environments,” the journalist reports.
Across India, it is not just Kerala that continues to face the threat of floods and landslides in years to come. Kodagu, a district of Kerala’s neighboring state of Karnataka, has also paid a heavy price for haphazard development. Home to many coffee plantations, Kodagu is considered a tourist’s paradise. Yet in 2018, floods ravaged the district, impacting most heavily those areas deforested to meet the demands of a growing tourism industry.
Villages in Goa and Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg area have also borne similar repercussions as the result of illegal mining.
“If things stay the way they are, parts of Kerala will be under water in the next five years,” Viju says.
“The trouble is Kerala doesn’t even acknowledge climate change and pays no attention to what’s behind the floods; this is worrying,” he concludes. “Kerala has been seeing a huge variation in rainfall over the years — from cloudbursts to severe drought. But we’re not prepared for what’s to come.”
The Catholic churches have been playing a big part in helping Kerala cope with the situation. Parishes around the state have been collecting funds and donations from parishioners to keep flood victims safe in camps and to help rebuild their lives, giving them opportunity to start again. In some cases, the churches have taken the lead in constructing houses outright, because most people cannot go back to the homes they lost.
Parts of northern Kerala are considered vulnerable and are on high alert. This is the new reality that the local churches are gearing up to face. Syro-Malabar Catholic Bishop Mar Remigiose Inchananjal of Thamarassery says this kind of rainfall and flooding in Kerala two years in a row is peculiar. Yet, his eparchy is making ready.
“We’re planning to conduct seminars and bring in experts to help us,” he says. “We’re also encouraging people to plant more trees and bamboo to help the environment in any way we can.”
So far this year, the Eparchy of Thamarassery has collected nearly $500,000 for flood relief.
“This money will go towards housing, agriculture and to help people get back on their feet,” Bishop Mar Remigiose says. Officials of the eparchy are also helping neighboring churches, Eastern and Latin, with fundraising efforts.
A recent investigation revealed Kerala has no local forecasting systems to predict floods at river basins and reservoirs; such a system could have deflected some of the death and destruction in 2019.
Amid such glaring oversights, the church does what it can to help those affected to regain stability.
In a remote part of Wayanad district in northern Kerala, the village of Chaligadhea is home to a community of Adivasi — an umbrella term for India’s indigenous or tribal peoples. Adivasi are financially and educationally underserved and are given a special status by the Indian government under its Scheduled Tribes category. Among the Adivasi of Chaligadhea, called Adiyas, poverty is high and the community receives governmental shipments of rice each month to help stave off hunger.
Alice Cecil is the field worker in this area for the Wayanad Social Service Society — a social service organization of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Mananthavady.
“The floods completely submerged the paddy fields in this village,” she says. Most of the workforce in this area consists of daily wage workers; as it is, work is not regular. “Now there’s no work, no money coming in,” Ms. Cecil says.
Alice is on first-name terms with everybody in the village; she knows every nook, every corner. This familiarity helps her coordinate church efforts to rebuild local houses destroyed by the floods. “The priority is to give them a roof over their heads,” she says.
“We’ve also been helping them to grow their own vegetables,” she adds. Every backyard has a garden that includes tomatoes, spinach, beans and mangoes. “It’s fine that they get rice, flour and lentils from the government. But they still need vegetables.”
Some 70 miles south of Wayanad lies Palakkad — the hottest place in Kerala. During peak summer months of March through May, temperatures soar to 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Mango trees blossom here in December, which is winter in the rest of the state. Yet Palakkad also witnessed landslides in 2019.
“Palakkad is drought-ridden year after year,” says the Rev. Jacob Mavunkal, director of People’s Service Society Palakkad (P.S.S.P.), the social service wing of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Palghat.
“But 2018 proved that we’re also prone to floods; 2019 confirmed the floods weren’t a one-off and that we should expect this from now on.”
The eparchy turned 35 parish halls into relief camps for some 10,000 people. Father Mavunkal says the local church needs to be ready for this situation again.
“The church is worried and concerned about those who work in agriculture because landslides mean those in remote areas lose their only way of making a living,” he says.
“We’re making sure women are able to be financially independent. So we’re giving them sewing machines so they can earn money,” Father Mavunkal says, adding that P.S.S.P. works with 130 churches in the eparchy.
“We help people irrespective of their religion. We help any family who needs our help,” he says.
The organization now also helps to rebuild and reconstruct homes that were lost in the landslides, to repair damaged houses and to help people reclaim lost lands and livelihoods.
In Puthanur village in Palakkad, Valli Mallampalla lost her six goats in the floods. “That was my livelihood. I’d sell milk and make a bit of money,” she says.
P.S.S.P. has provided her with three goats to help her earn money.
Down the road from Ms. Mallampalla live Omana Appu and her husband. They’re both daily wage workers, even though Mrs. Appu has not been able to work due to a back injury. Their home was destroyed in the heavy rains that lashed the area for more than a week.
“We don’t have any land or house documents or indeed anything to prove that this land is ours,” Mrs. Appu says. “So we’re not entitled to get any compensation from the government.” P.S.S.P. now covers the costs of rebuilding.
A mile farther down the road lives Ambika V., in the village of Vallapurathu. A widow, Ambika alone supports her elderly mother. Her house was also destroyed in the heavy rain last August.
“We managed to survive last year’s rain, but not this year’s,” she says. The local church is stepping in to cover the costs of roof repairs that she cannot.
The floods of the last two years have tested the people of India. But through indomitable faith, and the support of the strong community of love in India’s churches, tragedy can bring to light an even greater hope.
“We’re hoping Palakkad will adopt more environmentally friendly practices,” Father Mavunkal says. “We can’t afford to be ill-prepared for a situation like this again.”
Anubha George is a former BBC editor and writes on Kerala culture. Based in Cochin, her work has been published in Scroll.in and The Good Men Project, among others. She also teaches journalism at India’s leading media schools.
India: The CNEWA Connection
CNEWA was among the first to rush aid to help local parishes in Kerala care for those devastated by the floods in 2018 and 2019. Galvanized by the sheer scope of the devastation, parish-led initiatives rescued families, housed and fed the homeless, and offered support and counsel to those who lost family members. And parishioners remained supportive even after the initial crises had faded from public view. Most of these efforts were coordinated by the various social service ministries of the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic eparchies, among CNEWA’s primary on-the-ground partners.
“The landslides here really showed that more work needs to be done to create eco-awareness and natural disaster rehabilitation,” said one such partner, the Rev. Sebastian Kochupurackal of the Eparchy of Idukki.
To help CNEWA as it accompanies the churches of India, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).