Rescue officials assist villagers out of a flooded area near Cochin following heavy monsoon rainfall. (photo: CNEWA)
Landslides left roads destroyed in the district of Idukki. (photo: CNEWA)
Father Sebastian meets with Joy Kannatt and his son. (photo: Meenakshi Soman)
It began while many still slept.
Annamma remembers it vividly. It was about 4 a.m. on 16 August 2018. She had woken up early to make coffee for her husband in the kitchen of their home in the village of Kanjikuzhi, in the high ranges of the Idukki District. A heavy rain was falling outside. It had been that way in Kerala for much of the month. But people had adjusted to it. Life went on as usual.
“My husband, Thomas, wakes up early in the morning,” she says, recalling his daily routine. “He then reads the Bible, prays and then goes to church.
“He has done this since he was a boy, every single day without fail. This was like any other morning: He prayed. I made him coffee.”
Then, everything changed.
Without warning, life as usual was shattered. A coconut tree crashed into the house. Water poured in; the walls crumbled. It was a landslide.
“I fainted,” Annamma says. “My son and husband had to carry me to safety.”
As with many in her village, Annamma was stunned. “We’ve lived here for generations,” she says. “It is so safe. I have no idea what happened.”
The monsoon rains hammered the state for days on end, causing heavy flooding throughout. Dams burst. More than a million people were affected; most of them were displaced from their homes. Across Kerala, at least 400 people died. Many of the higher villages such as Idukki were crippled by landslides.
“The landslide destroyed the house,” Annamma says.
Along with the house, the storm also swept away Annamma’s livelihood.
“Most of us here grow cocoa, coffee, coconuts, plantains and black pepper. The landslide destroyed it all.”
Annamma was forced to leave her home. The Kerala government declared it unsafe. It was decided the residents would have to buy land elsewhere, for which the government would provide financial assistance.
“We’re looking for land. So at the moment, we’re renting a house nearby,” Annamma explains. “But it is expensive — about $42 a month. It means we can’t buy medicines for high blood pressure and diabetes, which my husband and I both need.”
Annamma cannot hold back the tears. She cries while telling her story. But she is not alone; the Rev. Sebastian Kochupurackal has been there to console her — and along with his presence and support, the church has been able to offer resources, guidance, prayers and, most significantly, hope.
Father Kochupurackal is the executive director of the High Range Development Society (H.R.D.S.), the social welfare arm of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Idukki, founded in 2008.
“We work for the development of communities here, to help and educate them,” says Father Kochupurackal.
“The landslides here really showed that more work needs to be done to create eco-awareness and natural disaster rehabilitation.”
Putting such advocacy on hold for the moment, members of the local church rolled up their sleeves and went to work. In addition to raising 4.8 million rupees, or more than $67,000, to support those who lost their homes and their livelihoods, “the church staff decided to donate a month’s salary to the flood victims,” Father Kochupurackal says.
“This idea was later adapted by the Kerala government, if people wanted to donate to flood relief.”
The church’s immediate assistance was not just monetary; during the floods, the eparchy set up 105 rescue and relief camps.
“We helped about 7,000 families, keeping them safe in the camps set up in the church premises around Idukki,” the priest adds.
“We collected things like bedsheets and blankets from people. The bishop, vicar general, everyone from the eparchy helped out.”
The first priority was to give people a safe place to stay, where they would have food and a bed.
Now, several months after the devastating floods, the Eparchy of Idukki has set up a committee called Santvanasparsham (translating to “the touch of compassion and empathy”) to strategize and determine how to best help those still affected.
“It is comprised of priests, men and women from the area, volunteers. We get together to discuss how best to use the money we have collected,” he says.
But the work is only just beginning.
“Rehabilitation of this area,” the priest explains, “is a long process.”
That same August morning, Shaji George was also awake, working his shift as a driver in Dubai, nearly 2,000 miles northwest of Kerala. The news came by way of a text message.
“Basically, the message said my mother, father and sister had died in a landslide. That was it,” Shaji says. His parents and sister had been buried under the rubble.
Only later did he learn the full story. As they carried the bodies to the local hospital, someone realized Shaji’s sister was still alive, but barely. “There was a chance of saving her,” he says. “There’s a well-known local doctor. His house was 100 yards away. But the roads were blocked by the landslides and water. They couldn’t get my sister to the doctor because of that,” he explains.
“They tried so hard.”
Eventually, the rescuers reached the bishop’s house, where a morning liturgy was to begin.
“They asked if there were any nurses around,” Shaji says. “You know, a lot of the time sisters and nuns are also trained nurses in rural areas.”
But that morning, there was not a soul who could help. “My sister breathed her last at the bishop’s house. She couldn’t be saved.
“People tried their best. It wasn’t to be.”
Shaji has since left Dubai and returned to his native village of Vazhathope in the Idukki District. “I just couldn’t go back to the Gulf,” he explains. “My heart wasn’t in it at all. Words can’t explain how I feel.”
Father Kochupurackal and H.R.D.S. are helping Shaji cope with his great loss. It is not easy.
“It’s too early,” the priest says. “Shaji will take a long time to recover and heal. But we are here for him. We visit every other day if not every day.”
Faith has played a significant part in helping people come to terms with the natural disaster that took away everything and everyone they once knew. During a tragedy like a flood, Father Kochupurackal explains, people often turn to God and reevaluate their priorities.
“If they lose material things, such as a house or jewelry, they thank God that it wasn’t their loved ones whom they lost,” he says.
“The other thing is that we begin to understand that everything is temporary. No one, nothing is safe; anything can happen in a moment. Also there is a third thing: Natural disasters bring people together. We show concern for each other; we share and care, irrespective of dividing factors such as class, caste, color and creed.”
While people were brought together by tragedy, long-term challenges still remain.
“The biggest challenge is rebuilding the homes of those who lost them,” the priest says. “We asked our parishioners if they could donate some of their land to those who lost their homes. They donated 170 plots of land, which was beyond anything we expected.”
The Eparchy of Idukki is also helping people reconstruct their homes.
“We’ve been helping 100 families with rebuilding,” says Father Kochupurackal. “We’re giving them money on top of what they’re entitled to get from the government — in installments, so there’s accountability. We’re also helping people pay fees for their children’s education. We need to make sure no child misses school.”
“We’re a close knit community here,” says Joy Kannatt. He offers his own story as proof.
His automobile garage had been the place to go to in Vazhathope should you have a problem with your car, scooter, truck or van.
“When I came to the garage that morning, it was as if it had never existed,” Mr. Kannatt recounts. As with so many others in the area, he found his life and livelihood destroyed by the landslide.
“I had absolutely no idea what to do. I just stood there speechless and shocked,” he says.
A group of ten men came to his rescue, led by a local media celebrity.
“They’d bring their cars here for repair. When they heard about my garage, they got together and collected more than $5,000,” says Mr. Kannatt.
Another local man leased him a new plot of land.
“These guys are helping me set up my garage again and restart my life,” the mechanic says. “I had no idea how to move forward. I’d lost every single tool. But people were there for me. I’d never expected that.”
Joy Kannatt’s life has returned to something resembling normal. “This has taught me to help others when they’re in need,” he says. “We shouldn’t care about someone’s religion or caste.”
On a warm, humid and tropical morning in January, months after the flood, Father Xavier Kudiamssery sits in his office in Alappuzha, a small coastal town in Kerala. He is the executive director of the Alleppey Diocesan Charitable and Social Welfare Society of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Alleppey. It is also the largest nongovernmental organization in this coastal region, one of the ministries of which played a significant role in reaching out to those affected by the flood.
“We run a radio station called Radio Neythal,” Father Kudiamssery says. In Malayalam — the local language of Kerala — “neythal” means “seashore,” as the FM radio station was established to help with the educational and social development of the coastal communities.
Radio Neythal is also India’s first and only radio station that is run solely on solar power. The station broadcasts from 6:30 to 10:30 every morning.
“This is a secular radio station; we broadcast to and about every religion and community,” Father Kudiamssery says.
In the middle of last August, all of those factors combined to help the radio station not only transmit warnings, but also save lives. The coastal families in Alappuzha are mostly from the fishing community.
“This area was severely flooded,” Father Kudiamssery says, “more so because it is farther below the sea level than other places in Kerala.
“Flooding is a constant problem during a normal monsoon. But the relentless rains last year made it worse.”
It was because of Radio Neythal that the fishermen in this area came to the rescue of those stranded in their homes.
“Our station has a presence in pretty much all homes in Alappuzha. So when the first warning came, we broadcast it to make people aware of what was going on,” Father Kudiamssery says.
“We also have a mobile app for the radio so everybody in the area can access it one way or another.”
On 15 August 2018, Radio Neythal aired a warning from the local government authority about the declining situation. Over the next 24 hours, the diocese was asked to send boats to evacuate families.
“We sent in 211 vessels. Later on, fishermen from other parts of the state started coming in to help,” the priest recalls. “Eventually, we were also running 25 relief camps, providing food and shelter to more than 6,000 people.”
The church in India has donated millions of rupees toward relief. “It wasn’t just the Alleppey diocese,” he notes. “The Archdiocese of New Delhi also contributed about $20,000,” Father Kudiamssery says.
Despite these promising strides, much work remains.
“Houses and sewage systems were destroyed. Thousands of people lost their livelihoods. Families lost their livestock, such as hens, ducks and cows. All these are major sources of income for people in Kuttanadu,” Father Kudiamssery says.
Organizations such as the United Nations have also come forward with offers of help for those lacking sources of income.
“We need rehabilitation through reconstruction. The Catholic churches of Kerala have been helping women by donating sewing machines to them,” Father Kudiamssery says. “We’re also giving people livestock and helping them to rebuild their homes.
“Life needs to get back on track as soon as possible.”
But, he adds, “the most touching bit was that all communities — whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian — came to help each other during the crisis. There was such a camaraderie.”
Father Kudiamssery is proud of the role Kerala’s Roman, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches played during and after the floods. The presence and outreach of the church touched thousands and not only saved lives, but sustained hope.
“People here know how much we did and how we helped. They looked to us for help,” he says.
“We did all that we could — and more. The church led the rescue operation. All these months later, we continue to do so.”
Anubha George is a former BBC editor and writes on Kerala culture. Based in Cochin, her work has been published in Scroll.in, The Good Men Project among others. She also teaches journalism at India’s leading media schools.