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Flooded by floods in Kerala

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging (Psalms 46:1-3)

(A page from our flood diary during that horrid season – when Kerala faced massive flooding, in 2018)

Life throws you surprises. But sometimes double. Fire and water.

I was at the Divine Retreat Centre as a child, when DRC had a massive fire in the 90s. And now I have survived the flooding here too! This is a first hand report of all that we went through at the highest building in DRC’s English section – barely 50 metres from the Chalakudy River, this past week. When what seemed like a normal week turned out to be a life threatening one…

Aug 15 – Aug 15 morning went by like any other day in DRC – we worshipped God, marked Independence Day – drank paysum and hoisted the flag. Didn’t send son down to play as it was raining very heavily by afternoon. We kept running to the balcony to check how much the river had risen.

The first real warning however, came from our long term housekeeper Alphonsa chechi who called me to say that her village was out of power, it was pitch dark and that she was dragged into her home, through waters up to her waist, by a fireman. Checked the news, read updates, worked on our website that I edit and slept late.

Aug 16 – Our horror begins. Neighbour from the next door flat bangs on the door at 6 am screaming that water has entered the compound and she was fleeing with family. Groggily look out of the 10th storey window and am horrified to see that water has risen to over a feet and covered our grounds already. Neighbour comes back saying they could not go. No power but thankfully there is still water in the tap. I save some for cooking. Within minutes, people from all the houses on campus – around 25 families in total, including us, have occupied various floors of our 11-storeyed building.

One brother requests me to post an alert to media – 400 people, including priests, ministers, children and retreatants on campus! FB seems to be the fastest, so I post an alert and decide to cook lunch for everyone, as I have plenty of rice saved up – basmati rice that I got on offer to take home to mum. Thank God for that. Make a large pot of rice and curried chicken with watery gravy and kids help me dole it out to each flat. We get lovely yellow pulao from pregnant friend downstairs, and we are sharing the paper plates, so it’s half yellow and half white rice on the table. The people in the top floors eat together. Freezer is dead.

Rains and more rain. Parents begin to panic. One child breaks down on the stairs saying, “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die”. The temple across the river looks like it has sunk. Lord Jesus, please let there be no deaths! The sky is morbid and scary. People say that 3 dogs have been left on terraces and one caged bird may die soon. We can’t see any land or gardens anymore. Just tree tops, water and no birds or any signs of life below. Tried to nap, but too hard!

Kids hungry around tea time. Have honey and orange cake saved for sister’s weekend visit – cut that up and kids delighted with the unexpected treat.

Children begin to count car sirens as each car dies out one by one. Everyone goes to bed early at 8:30 pm after nourishing bowls of kanji served by neighbour. Cannot sleep. Toss and turn, praying and quoting Bible verses to self, to the sounds of pelting rain and raging water. Son very sad that we are alone. What if we had many people but no Jesus, I ask? We have only God but when you have God, all is well. Amen. The child sleeps. I pray, sleep and pray more. Lord, help us please! Dogs are barking all night long. Can hear screams from other houses outside our compound late into the night. Please save the people around too, Lord

Aug 17 – Our most eventful day. Sit up at 2am, 3 am and 5 am. Run to the terrace – we had to break the lock to enter. I bump into another sleepless soul – Sr Merlit; we are both concerned about our tanks drying up. Sr and I decide to be sports about it and climb atop the tanks above the 11th floor to see how much water is left. If my parents saw me climbing that flimsy ladder they would probably throw a fit! But survival and frugality is important right now. All our tanks show barely 3 inches of water. Sr suggests we remove the sheet on top so rainwater fills the tank. I hesitate at first thinking the tanks may overflow, but Sr explains sensibly that 25 families need water. Sr and I spend few minutes holding hands and praying fervently. I am choking up in between, but strangely, all I can utter are praises and we worship God from our hearts, faithfully and in peace, thanking Him that we are alive.

Back to action. The enterprising nun gets little kids to bring pots and pans from their homes. Our rainwater harvesting begins. One brother comes and tries to wrench the sheet up, using the tools brought by kids in the building, but looks like it’s welded shut Panic returns. Some say the building will collapse into the river soon. My assertion that it is strong and will stand, is seconded only by little Abhaya. Majority on our floor thinks it will fall soon, may be even while we are asleep. No way, when God is alive!!

Rains and more rains. Gale winds begin to blow. More prayers go up. I decide to cook some oats. God bless that salesgirl who convinced me to get 1.5 kg oats – I had joked that it would take me a year to finish. Little did we know how precious that packet would be! Again the kiddo gang, my super heroes, help me take those around. Most flats have made something small for breakfasts. Kids eat dry cereals by hand – the porridge is watery and not filling enough anyway. Strangely enough, I am neither hungry nor thirsty. Just dazed seeing everything go kaput one by one.

The helicopters begin to fly. All of us are upset about the 3 homes below with the elderly – son Kenneth and friends make a lovely arrow board that says HELP (they later added on ‘US’ so that someone would save us too �) so we can point to the homes below when the helicopters look down. Clever! Anyway, the kids now have a project and they are happy. Colouring the cardboard and fashioning it into a large arrow. The adults are still flustered.

I have taken out my whistle from my journalism days and it’s hanging around my neck like second skin. Try to switch on phone but hundreds of messages are coming in and battery is draining out so I switch it off again. We are beginning to fear that our building will be missed. Teach the children to signal SOS using whistles, red shopping bags and torches. Never thought the Morse Code we were taught as kids by my dad, who was in the navy, would be so handy today. The kids pick it up beautifully and there is frantic signalling going on. I whistle, people scream ‘help’ and our kids direct the choppers.

Many helicopters are flying around. Finally, we can see bread being delivered to the other building. Then we have our turn. One large naval helicopter hovers above us and it’s force is driving people backwards. I run forward and feel sharp pain as something bangs against my leg. Somehow run forward, we sign for water and they lower a basket with 1 litre water bottles and 4 tiny food parcels in the corner. We distribute the water, making sure each occupied flat at least gets one bottle.

Ray of sunshine in the sky and in our hearts! Glory hallelujah! That one helicopter with its 4 packets of food and 18 water bottles have made us feel so loved and remembered by friends and strangers outside. Signal thanks to the Sardar in the chopper. Bless him. Bless all these heroes who are sending us help and coming to us. The air is so happy today – people remember us! Yay!

We finally get a second chopper in the late afternoon – we sign for more food, they say no. We ask for water, they say no with helpless faces. We wave tata. People worried about the newborn and the pregnant woman in our building.

No sign of more food. Looks like we are going to have to cook a late lunch. Rainwater, here we try to source you again. On the other side, we don’t want more rain either. Crazy.

We are hungry and tired. make notes and insert them into bottles and kids tie shoe laces around them – message in bottles to send up to the choppers! (guess we have all watched too many adventure movies. And Swiss Family Robinson was one of my childhood favourites!) Don’t have any idea how to make wax or candles though. Everyone needs candles and I have perfumed tea lights that snuff out in seconds. And one mini lighter and a very bad torch. Son wants to set light to our ‘Bust of angel’ candle – I hope it won’t come to that soon.

Second post on FB. Men finally manage to break open the top sheet covering one tank. Kids and I have saved one large tub of water out of 6 open vessels! Enough for today’s cooking! Hallelujah! Fridge has to be emptied soon. Get out butter saved for cakes and make chicken mince in butter, throw in coconut grated for puttu and shallots saved to make prawns pickle for a friend! Another miracle. Have one extra large cauliflower so decide to make Chilli Gobi (with gravy of course – when you have lots of half bottles of sauces in your fridge, chilli-making comes natural)

Amazing little Serene this time helps me carry the curries up and down 10 floors. Her mum gave the rice. Most people have made kanji at home. Everyone loves the coconut buttery chicken mince – must christen it Mince Ala Flood – when I come out one day. Hopefully soon.

Afternoon. Kids are playing board games and pretending all is normal. Adults are mentally doing food math, fiddling with dead phones and in between, we are all running upstairs to see if any more food is coming. No. Nada.

I take out my diary and begin writing, writing, only interrupted by kids who want to know if they are mentioned in my book yet.

No dinner but plenty of worship in each room. Our finest worship leader and family are in our flat; we worship and sing songs – glory to God – some are a tad upset that we got no food after 14 trips to the terrace, but we reconcile ourselves to the fact that others needed it better and God has directed every morsel to the right ones around us. Amen.

So many beautiful pictures etched into my mind today – one family went around distributing all the fish in their freezer – although we just have no ways to cook it. Pregnant friend made some food to carry to the main building as we heard Malayalam had 1500 stranded and people in our main building was still struggling. Someone said they got a message that our flat was not visible from above, so we quickly got 2 red saris and tied them on our balcony railing, 3 of us shared thyroxine, people cooked and ate together and we girls joked about may be going up the terrace with soap for a natural rain water bath in the night. If heroines can do it, why can’t we? All of us on the terrace are dirty, stinking and have soaked clothes and matted hair by night. I rinse my hair out with few drops of shampoo and 2 mugs of water.

No dinner. The helicopter had blown a metal chair lying on the balcony at my leg – bless the nameless brother who saved my face on time by grabbing the flying chair. Leg swollen. Every bone is aching. But we are alive! Glory be to God.

Aug 18 – More cries of Krishna, Krishna at night – we finally direct a raft using whistle and signs to the elders below. They are rescued and whoops go up.

We had prayed last night that we would WALK out of this place and we wake up to see not much water but just thick mud! Woohoo! Some of us run down. The fuel that’s leaked from the cars have gotten snakes around to come out into the water and the baby ones are slithering all around us, so we can’t walk far. Ayyoooo!

Can see the dry highway far away and the temple across seems to be ok! No more cries. Thank God. People are venturing outside to see what their homes look like. Dogs are fed. Some have saved and brought up clothes. Praise be to God. First heartbreaking news – one man I have never seen before comes crying to our building saying those in Hermon building never got any food and their children are starving. We empty all the rice we have into two pots instead of one. We have an extra building to feed now. Kiddo gang lines up to help. I empty my smelly fridge and clean it with undiluted disinfectant. Give all the shrivelled bell peppers, beans and carrots to the kids – to chop up. Even the youngest one – Achu (7) chops beans with a mini scissors. Cheeses saved for making lasagna with the sheets my sister sent, all distributed. We make sausage (pieces so tiny), jeera and tomato rice in one pot and dried veg fried rice in another. Some frantic stirring by the kids. Our kids are absolute sports. They finally eat like happy Arabs, from one large pot. We have hardly any water left to wash even that.

Families begin to leave. Some try to walk through the muck, to the highway. Some of us have no way to inform relatives. We chose to stay positive and take all our remaining supplies to Hermon. Tough older kids Enoch, Arpit and Shruthi help me carry the large vessel and food supplies across to Hermon.

To think that I was at first concerned about the food in my freezer getting spoilt! When we gave it all away, we got that and more back. Thank You, Jesus. Little Dominic and Arpit drag 2 buckets of water up for me to cook more of needed. Young Arun comes up 4 times before they leave and brings one more bucket of precious water.

I manage to send up one more message in a bottle when a small aircraft comes by. We forget our earlier notes and improvise. Restless. I walk and wade through the campus and my heart breaks at the devastation this flood has caused – 3 decades of hard work of the Vincentian priests have come to nought. Prayer halls, offices, dispensary, farm, homes, all messed up, apparently. Click some pics. I had absentmindedly gone out with mismatched shoes – but as one brother quipped, I came back with both matching – mud covered black shoes.

One brother and family visits. His mum has died and her body is in Ernakulam and he can’t travel yet. I do not know how to reach them, my family or go home. Another Facebook post. Can see thousands of messages now and many shares. Family calling frantically from Hyderabad and Bangalore. Priest brothers calling. If only I could speak to them. Bless you all, but can’t read any messages. Dig out second old phone and it has barely any power left. But thankfully, the sun is out and shining brightly. All of us are wondering where to start. It definitely has to be a team effort. May God give us the wisdom and grace.

Aug 19 – driver from home, beloved cousins from Kottayam and friends are all ready to reach any minute. Cousins from Kochi come half the way and are directed to go back. Finally driver Simple, sent by my cousin Sr Liza arrives just as I have concocted a very very watery Bhajji with 5 potatoes and 2 litres of water for our friends in the building. Son upset as all the kids have left.

I run to check on a Gujarati brother who is bedridden – Lord forgive me – I didn’t know his wife was away ministering. I drop half the Bhajji during my race to him, but thank God he has been taken care of. How can he not be? This world is full of angels. I finally pack up and leave. Only because my parents just promised to sent me back after seeing my face. Tears and hugs from the elderly. Promise to come back and soon. My heart is here. Can’t stay away.

People have lost their homes, furniture, clothing, electronic things. I see them standing around their homes. But we are all alive and our kids are safe too. Some day, all this might make sense. Until then, we will rejoice that we faithed it until we made it. Amen.

*DRC is the world’s largest Catholic Retreat centre. Retreats are held 365 days a year. Our priests Fr Mathew Naickomparampil and Fr George Panackal have asked for help and support to rebuild the centre. Our English section director Fr Augustine Vallooran too requires immense manpower and support to help us through this crisis. Anyone who wishes to help may contact the centre. Website: www.drcm.org

You have no idea how immensely grateful we are to each one of you who helped us by messaging, calling, directing rescue, sending food, tweeting and facebooking. Much love to you all.

As for those who are trying to spread division – a small tip – please learn from the lessons life teaches you or you will have to learn them again the harder way. Love wins all the time.

And please don’t use this as an excuse to mock God. We prayed that we would WALK out of a flooded building and God did make us walk out – slippery or no.

Bringing political differences into this crisis – that’s plain sad, cos we are Indians. We may have our quirks, but we are one.

Forgive the ones who got the information wrong – DRC has many sections and many buildings. Someone was bound to get confused. We know what we went through and we are fine. Thank God and thank you all. We know you care.

As for religion, none of us really made any differentiation based on it. My Muslim friends from my schooldays in Abu Dhabi were the first ones to offer me stay in their Trichur homes. Each minute, my Hindu friends who are also family, cared. Even inside DRC, we worried about our Auto chettans and cleaners’ families all around the campus next door and we prayed for them all.

We didn’t bring religion into it. We did not and we will not. I did not pray once just for Christians to be saved. Everyone from every state and religious background helped this multicultural section in DRC. So don’t pull at that thread. Pinne, #MalayaliDa

Flood Quirkies – (cos we Malayalees find humour in everything)

* During one of those bleak huddles, we ask the kids to sing a song to liven up the mood. They break out with, “Vida vangunneee” (funeral song) We stop them immediately. May be no more singing would be better, after all.

*Kids worn out as helicopters with food have come closer 14 times (we counted) and we got disappointed 13 times. Halfway through, little Steve queries, ‘May be cos we are screaming loudly, we don’t seem tired. If we look weak, would they help?”

* Little Achu has clung on to me – he spots his favourite priest from few blocks away on his terrace. He screams, “Acha, praise be to God”. A sthuthi from across the buildings!

*“I ask one brother if he has eaten – “ Bhakshanam kazhicho”. He dryly replies – ““Oru Kalyanam kazhichu” and that’s why I am here having to take care of 3 more people”.

*I look closely at an intricate design on the mud during one of our trips to Hermon. Boy behind tells me, “Chechi, that’s a mark left by the Iruthala Moori (boa snake) Eeeeeeeek! Entamme. Thought they were almost extinct. Didn’t go to double check. And I don’t have Google here either to triple check.

* Kids decide that naval helicopters are piloted by North Indians so may be screaming in Hindi night bring us the aid quicker. One problem. Most of the kids are not fluent Hindi. As the next chopper comes along, one child screams out the only Hindi words he knows, “Beti bachaooooo”. The adults’ looks are priceless and peals of laughter from me.

* One brother quips as the 5th helicopter flies off, “The 5th raven has gone too”.

* As our second helicopter lowers around lunch time, hopeful faces look up for food. Previous chopper had a videographer. Probably our families will wake up to see our visuals on TV. We ask current chopper for food. They say no. We ask for water and they say no. One of the kids who suddenly thinks they are caged in the sky like we are caged on the ground, says innocently from behind, “Then come and join us”!

*I wonder out aloud why all one helicopter came so close to check on us when they had no food supplies. Kids reply: “That’s cos one of us was beating his breast Red Indian style, kneeling down and making frantic faces, so they may be thought he had to be airlifted”. Those cheeky kids! But what chumps they are!

*As I reach home and am surrounded by hugs – my parents are housing Kuttanadan cousins so it feels like Onam at home – my brother quips on the phone from abroad, “So you cooked? And all of them are still alive?” Humph.

*Most hopeful exclamation from son Kenneth, “Tomorrow I will be back home and I can not only eat my Nana’s food and chat with grandpa, I can also wash hands from the tap afterwards and I get to eat from a plate!”

*Currently I am in ‘learning to charge mobiles through batteries’ mode. Reached home 19th and back in DRC from the 21st to help with the clean-up.

Flood then, now mud.

This note is dedicated to each one of you – loved ones and strangers who called, messaged, organised rescue and relief operations. We are alive because you cared Much love and many thanks. This is a day to day report – our actions, our worries and our quirks. Because so many want to know what exactly happened during those 5 days…Thanks be to Jesus. Thank you family and friends, friends of friends, police, firemen, our fishermen brothers, army, navy, government officials, troll admins, NRIs, control room guys, medics, drivers, all of India and people abroad who connected too – you know who you are! Please take this as a big thank you. Big pat on the back! 

By Linda Joseph Kavalackal,
Christ & Co.

(Picture Courtesy: Reuters)

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