It is the afternoon of August 19, and the sky over central Kerala is a deathly yellow. Having sent down torrents of rain for days on end, it looks spent. From the naval Sea King helicopter in which I am seated, the view below is of a vast expanse of water perforated by the occasional thicket, patches of dry land, a few defiant coconut palms, ridges of sloped roofs, and tall, multilevel dwellings whose terraces, until the other day, had been packed with the marooned, waiting desperately for the thrum of a helicopter.
The buildings are largely empty now, their occupants either consumed by the rising tide or evacuated to safety. A multi-agency rescue mission involving the Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Army, the National Disaster Response Force, and several others had commenced on a modest scale on August 9 before expanding over the next 10 days, with hundreds of aerial and boat search parties tackling head-on the worst natural calamity in the State’s recent history.
Now the floodwaters have begun to recede. Rescue missions have been wound up. Rationing of supplies, however, is still ongoing. Ours is one of the several relief supply sorties launched from the Southern Naval Command’s air station Garuda, the hub of aerial rescue and relief operations.
Since the start of the operations, the Navy, Air Force and the Coast Guard have together flown 513 rescue-cum-relief sorties, clocking over 677 hours of flying, and airlifting 1,173 people to safety. At the time of reporting, boat rescues by the Navy and the fishers had together saved 16,843 people from certain death. The Sea King, though an ageing helicopter with antiquated avionics, is a multi-role aircraft that continues to be the all-weather workhorse of the Indian Navy.
Not like flying over sea
“Have something for lunch. It’s going to be a long haul,” says Lieutenant Commander Abhijeet Garud. He has just returned from a sortie and the Sea King that he captains, a commando variant with the tail number IN556, is being turned around for the afternoon sortie. I am on board with nearly a dozen divers, along with loads of food packets, water, other essentials, and rescue gear. Garud is already a known name, courtesy a viral video of his nimble landing two days ago on a narrow rooftop to evacuate an 80-year-old woman.
The flood rescue-and-relief mission has pushed the pilots to the brink of the prescribed fatigue limits. They launch their aircraft at daybreak, return after a sortie for hot-refuelling, and take off again. The routine repeats after an hour’s break. The debriefing gets over by 8.00-8.30 p.m., after which they have a quick meal and retire for the night. “Pilots have lost weight merely by sitting in the cockpit,” says Garud, who has lost five kg in 10 days. He has logged 45 hours on the chopper during the mission. “Under normal circumstances, those are your flying hours for an entire month. But training sorties are in a controlled environment. Here we are talking about high-pressure sorties with obstacles all around.”
Garud has flown 16 sorties as part of the mission. He has rescued 156 people, dropped nine Gemini boats and 36 divers, and relocated 21 army troopers of the 19 Madras Regiment as part of the Navy’s flood relief ops, nicknamed Madad.
A motley crowd of flight engineers, technicians, and pilots on a break between sorties are going about their chores outside the Sea King hangar when I bump into Captain P. Rajkumar, attired in flying overalls, speaking on his mobile phone. He had been awarded the Shaurya Chakra for hauling a fisherman from the sea during Cyclone Ockhi last December in an unprecedented heliborne night rescue operation.
Rajkumar, 54, in-charge of the Navy’s Flight and Tactical Simulator in Kochi for the training of Sea King pilots, has been active in the flood rescue missions. “I would say it is ten times more challenging than what I had done during Ockhi,” he says. The flood scene was grim on August 17. The sky was overcast, with low visibility. He was flying an anti-submarine variant of the Sea King along the Chalakudy-Aluva stretch north of Ernakulam, which had been badly hit by the floods, when he spotted frantic waving from a terrace. “There were tall trees all around, but I brought the helicopter into a hover and my crew winched up, one by one, a total of 26 people. Along with the crew, it was 32 on board. Never before had we carried these many people in a Sea King,” he says. “Flying over the sea is different. There are no obstructions. But when you do this kind of an operation over land, you must be wary of tall trees, high-tension wires, and microwave and mobile towers.”
The noise in the cabin is deafening, but not everyone on board the IN556 is keen to wear an ear defender. The divers have squeezed themselves into the narrow pockets of space unoccupied by stacks of relief materials. Flight navigator Lieutenant Satyarth Sharma and winch operator Ajit Singh are on radio with the pilot Garud and co-pilot Lieutenant Commander Rajneesh Kumar, as we head southeast from the naval base. The sailor sitting across from me has a T-shirt with INS Shalki and a dolphin on it. There’s a hint of surprise in his nod, as he lip-reads my query on whether he was based in Mumbai. The Western and the Eastern Commands of the Navy have also sent men and material to help the flood-affected.
Singh has a foot on the partially open sliding door of the chopper. He is scanning the ground for terraces with people. Using gestures, he asks a group huddled on a rooftop what they need, and the aircraft whirs into a low hover. He then joins Sharma and Rajan, a diver who is part of the crew, in lowering food packets and cases of drinking water using the winch. In some places, the packets are just dropped. A little later, the helicopter makes an unhurried landing in a small rectangular clearing to the right of a building. The rotor wash blows away roofing sheets stacked up beside a shed. The divers hop off to offload the store, and I take clearance from the crew to talk to a small crowd that has gathered in front and to the right of the chopper at a safe distance.
On to the Gemini
Parked to our right is a bus of the Nazareth College of Pharmacy, Othera, Thiruvalla. “We have food and power. There was this fake news about us being badly hit, but we are safe. Many women and children in Chengannur and Thiruvanvandoor need you,” says a nun, speaking for the group. Some others are busy taking pictures of the chopper on their mobile phones.
Having offloaded the supplies at Thiruvalla, from where they will be transported to the affected areas nearby, the empty helicopter returns to the naval base for hot-refuelling and store replenishment. Laden with store, the copter is airborne again in a matter of 10 minutes and heads north. Scenes of destruction caused by the flood suddenly loom up as we fly over Chendamangalam. “Isn’t this where you wanted to be airdropped,” asks a crew member, suggesting that I identify the predetermined school location.
The pale yellow façade of the Government Higher Secondary School at Paliam in Chendamangalam is in full view now, its sprawling courtyard resembling a watery graveyard for vehicles. A naval boat team that has been carrying out rescue in the area is my contact point. I can now see them moving their rubber Gemini boat into a strait between two school buildings to protect it from the rotor wash. I am lowered into a rescue basket onto the school’s slippery terrace. The overhanging branches of a nearby Banyan tree shake and sway violently as the chopper resumes its forward flight, halting for a few moments to drop supplies on a nearby rooftop. Walking gingerly, I cross over to the sunshade of an adjacent building and climb down an old iron ladder onto the Gemini, to be received by Lieutenant Commander Vijay Raj, captain of the naval boat team.
The tile-roofed, off-colour school buildings are still surrounded by waist-deep water. Raj and his team are gearing up to ship the last lot of 10 people from the nearly 250 locals who had been entrapped. They will be ferried to a patch of dry land outside the compound, and then will go by truck to a government-run relief camp in North Paravur. “With the waters rising on August 15, everyone made a beeline for the school, which was thought to be a safe location. It had not been inundated in the floods of 1961. But this time, the flooding was rapid and we had to break open some padlocks to take refuge in the upper floors. As the water rose to a height of 12-13 ft, many people fled, and we got trapped. We have lost everything — our homes, possessions, cattle. But wherever we go now, we will all go together,” says Rukhiya Siddique, 57, a resident of the Chendamangalam panchayat.
The Navy’s steady aerial supplies over the last four days have kept their hopes alive, points out Raj, as his team, comprising diver Rahul Bhukar and sailors Mukesh Kumar and Pradeep Kumar, pushes the boat towards a truck waiting at a distance. Raj has seven teams under his command, each with a diver. In this team, he is joined by Roopesh N.R., a local guide.
Roopesh is a commando with the Kerala Anti-Terror Squad. He had to quickly leave Areekode, where he works, on Independence Day, to lead the evacuation mission in his native Paliam. “We teamed up locally and rescued everyone, from newborns to 90-year-olds. We lodged them in relatively safe locations. But this was not without some needless issues. Despite owning a big boat, people at a nearby illam (Brahmin ancestral home) refused to part with it for rescue. So we tied gas cylinders together and put them afloat to transport ailing people,” says Roopesh, as the Gemini carries us to the narrow bylanes of the panchayat, the bottom of its motor scraping the ground with a sputter where water has receded considerably.
In the early days, some boats got damaged from plying over gates with sharp spikes, from nails fixed on compound walls, or when the outboard engine got locked to the pulley-beam of a submerged well. “There were some fulfilling moments, like the time we made a makeshift stretcher to shift from the second floor some very old and ailing people. There was also this woman with a newborn who wept in relief after we helped her to safety,” says Raj, smiling.
Kumar blows a whistle to see if any of those who have stayed put are in need of supplies. At the far-end of a water-logged Sree Krishna Temple Road, beyond an inundated panchayat office, stays the family of V.K. Venugopal, a photographer. “Along with some neighbours, who are also relatives, we remained on the top floor. The river is a kilometre away. When the waters came, we went upstairs,” says a dishevelled and haggard Venugopal as he receives his rations of water and cereals. He doesn’t want to shift his 90-years-plus mother to another place. The suggestions to the contrary from Roopesh and the naval team cut no ice with the family. Venugopal tells us that he has been using an inverter to keep his mobile phone alive.
Bravehearts of Puthuvype
In a strange twist of irony, a bunch of fishermen, themselves fighting penury, deprivation, and the vagaries of nature, has been in the vanguard of the battle against the flood. Feeling a need to augment rescue efforts, Charles George, the unassuming convenor of the Fisheries Coordination Committee, some officials of the Fisheries Department, and legislator S. Sarma had wondered if the fishers could help. As if on cue, on August 16, the second day of major flooding, they took to the highways, canals and flooded fields with 12 motorised canoes. “They were all from Puthuvype island, mostly the project-affected people of the massive Kochi LNG terminal. Dispatching their flood-hit families to relief camps, they brought their canoes and inboard carrier boats to look for stranded people in the Aluva, Muppathadam, Thaikkattukara, and Kadungalloor areas, and in the isolated islands of Pizhala, Kothad and Kadamakkudy,” says George, who coordinated their rescue. By the time the fishers called off the operations, they had launched 146 big and small boats to save thousands of people. There were more from Thiruvananthapuram.
N.S. Suresh, 48, a Puthuvype fisherman, is distraught at his inability to save an old woman from drowning in the swirling waters. “We were steering the canoes over coconut leaves, banana groves, hedges, and the roofs of submerged houses, which often tugged at our boat engines, damaging them. But it did not bother us. There were times when we had to ferry 14 people in a canoe made to carry just four. Hunger is not new to us, so we skipped meals to save time and save more people each day before nightfall,” he says.
“Had it not been for the fishers, the death toll would have been much higher,” says film actor Salimkumar, who had been saved from his flooded home in Paravur, along with his family and some neighbours, by a group of fishermen. Allesh Joseph, 63, a resident of the remote Karingamthuruth near Kongorpilly on the outskirts of Kochi, had decked up his house for his son’s wedding. Waylaid by a rising Periyar, he shifted to his brother’s place a kilometre away. “Just four houses were spared by the waters. Everyone in the neighbourhood, along with their cattle, house cats, and pet dogs had sought refuge in these houses. Two days and nights later, the boatmen came looking for us. Suresh and Shaji (another rescuer) steered their boats over the waters strewn with some cable wires that had come loose. They took us to Koonammavu, from where we drove down to Kadavanthra,” says Joseph. His brother Tomy, who has come from Austria for the family wedding, shudders at the thought of how they saved a bed-ridden 86-year-old uncle. “With everyone rushing to board, we thought the boat would capsize. But they made him sit in a chair and steered the boat with care,” he says.
I get airlifted from the school terrace by the same chopper that had dropped me. We fly back to the naval base. On the way, I spot a traditional fishing boat laden with raw coconuts in the clear backwaters crisscrossing Kochi. As George puts it, for once the fishers had closed ranks alongside the forces to form the first line of defence against the floods.
The T2 hangar of the base has been turned into a relief camp for people rescued by the helicopters. The neatly laid out camp has 101-year-old Karthyayani, her kin 68-year-old Sath, and 78-year-old Ratnamma from Chendamangalam thanking their stars. Raji, 31, who is eight months pregnant, her husband Aneesh, a paint worker, and their seven-year-old son were airlifted by a Navy Chetak helicopter from Kurumassery school in the badly hit Parakkadavu panchayat on August 18. They may not be able to go back to their dilapidated house any time soon, with people speaking of the stench of dead cattle in the trail of the floodwaters. But they still have a broad smile on their faces. A prenatal scan conducted by the hospital has told them that the baby is doing fine.
Little Alex, all of four, was wondering whether he would have to survive on the rain water they had harvested using a pipe when the entire family, comprising his mother, aunt, cousins, and grandparents, was saved by a naval helicopter from their housetop in Poovathussery. He has found playmates at the camp and remains busy. Aleena, his sister in Class 9, says determinedly that she will join the Services to save lives.