Kerala floods disrupt expats’ travel plans; death toll jumps
Rescue stepped up as more torrential rain batters Indian state
KUWAIT/KOCHI: Holiday plans of hundreds of expats scheduled to travel to Kerala from Kuwait for Eid Al-Adha and Onam have been thrown into disarray while many others already on vacation in the state are on tenterhooks following the closure of Kochi International Airport in the aftermath of the worst-ever flood disaster in the southern Indian state. All airlines flying into Kochi airport from Kuwait and back have either been cancelled or diverted to nearby airports after floodwaters inundated the runways following incessant rains and opening of dam shutters.
“I was scheduled to resume work on the 26th of this month after my one-month vacation. Now I cannot reach Kuwait on Sunday. I don’t know what will happen to my job,” said Jimmichan Joseph, who spoke to Kuwait Times by phone from Cochin. He echoed the plight of hundreds of others who are stranded in the state without finding any means to travel back to Kuwait anytime soon. Many people were trying to rebook their flights, while others were trying to shift their departure from Trivandrum, Bangalore, Mangalore or Chennai.
An official statement said Kochi airport will remain closed until Aug 26. However it is not certain that the airport will be able to resume operations. According to airport Director A C K Nair, the airport authorities were forced to take this drastic step in the face of an “unprecedented situation”. “It is the peak holiday season. Any change in the booking is hard to make,” said Kareem, a travel agent, pointing out that airlines are trying to make maximum adjustments. Some airlines are redirecting their flights from Cochin to Bangalore, Trivandrum or Chennai.
“We were planning to travel tomorrow to Kerala as we wanted to spend the Eid holiday with our aged parents. Now the airline informed us that my bookings have been cancelled,” said Aziz Ibrahim, an expat from the Vayanad district of Kerala, one of the worst-affected regions in the state. Indians in Kuwait, like their counterparts outside India, are worried about the safety of their relatives back home.
In Kerala, rescuers in helicopters and boats fought through renewed torrential rain yesterday to reach stranded villages, as the toll from the worst monsoon floods in a century rose above 320 dead. Dozens of military and coastguard helicopters took troops to high risk areas seeking people trapped on the roofs of submerged buildings. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the crisis as “devastating” after visiting Kerala.
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Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced late Friday that the monsoon death toll had dramatically risen to 324. Media reports said at least another 14 bodies were found yesterday and state officials said they expected the number to rise as more landslides were reported and dam levels remained dangerously high. No new official toll was given however. With power and communication lines down, thousands remained trapped in towns and villages cut off by the floods amid growing shortages of food and water. Helicopters have been dropping emergency food and water supplies across Kerala, while special trains carrying drinking water and rice have been sent to the state.
With rain alerts hanging over much of the state, dozens of dam and reservoir gates across the state have had to be opened as the waters reached danger levels, inundating many villages downstream. Particular fears have been raised for Chengannur, about 120 km north of the state capital Thiruvananthapuram, which has been cut off for four days. Troops and military boats have been sent to the town and media reports said bodies had been found.
Saji Cherian, who represents Chengannur in the Kerala assembly, said he feared there were at least 50 dead in the town and broke down in tears as he pleaded for more help on Asianet TV late Friday. “Please give us a helicopter. I am begging you. Please help me, people in my place will die. Please help us. There is no other solution, people have to be airlifted,” he said. “We did what we can with fishing boats we procured using our political clout. But we can’t do more.”
With no end in sight to the rains, people all over the state of 33 million have made panic-stricken appeals on social media for help, saying they cannot make contact with rescue services. Some say they are trapped inside temples and hospitals as well as submerged homes. Authorities have warned that rains and strong winds are predicted for many parts of Kerala yesterday and today.
Prime Minister Modi arrived in Kerala on Friday night and held meetings with state leaders and went on a brief air inspection tour. “I took stock of the situation arising in the wake of the devastating floods across the state,” Modi said in a Twitter statement. An immediate grant of $75 million was offered by the government. Other state governments promised nearly $20 million.
Opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi demanded though that Modi declare the flood crisis a “national disaster”. Dozens of military helicopters stepped up rescue operations across the state and in one a heavily pregnant woman Sajita Jabeel, 25, gave birth just after her rescue, an Indian Navy spokesman said. “It was a very critical case, the lady was in labor, her water had broken,” the pilot, the pilot Commandeer Vijay Verma told News18 television. “We took a doctor along, we winched her up, it took some time though because we had to winch down two people to help her get on to the strop.”
Another pilot, Captain P Rajkumar, winched 26 people up from a rooftop after guiding the helicopter through trees and other houses. A video of his Sea King pulling up the victims has been widely shared on social media. He ended up with 32 people in his Sea King helicopter. Rajkumar was given the Shaurya Chakra medal for bravery this week after lifting a fisherman from the sea when cyclone Ockhi hit India last year.
By Sajeev K Peter and Agencies