Thiruvananthapuram: As floodwaters rose, thousands of panic-stricken people dialled Kerala’s helpline numbers, seeking rescue for themselves or someone they knew.

What happens after one puts out that anxious call?

The way these disaster helplines receive and process information draws much from the state’s decentralized system of administration, which empowers local authorities.

Information from the panic calls directly goes to control rooms operating out of district collectorates, multiple government officials said on condition of anonymity.

Each control room has one protocol officer from crucial public offices involved in the crisis mitigation—from the police to the military. They quickly pass on the details to rescue teams on the ground, said P.B. Nooh, collector of Pathanamthitta, one of the worst-affected districts.

As distress calls besieged the helplines, there was a demand in some sections that the government hand over all the rescue operations to the military, which is assisting the state.

“Those who argue for a military take-over don’t understand the massive impact of this decentralized process. The information about a life in danger went immediately to multiple sources, and then right to the operational end, without delay," said state fire force head A. Hemachandran.

This process had its shortcomings, too. Shortage of manpower and equipment to adequately respond to thousands of distress calls was a problem, says Nooh.

Of particular help was hundreds of fishermen, who loaded their boats on trucks and drove to flooded regions to help rescue the marooned.

“While the Air Force helicopters saved seven lives on Saturday, 500 fishermen’s boats saved thousands of people just on Saturday," said a senior police official, requesting anonymity. They were also helped by hundreds of social organizations in Kerala, he said.

Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who was scheduled to visit the US stayed back, holding a review meeting every five hours. According to one civil servant who did not want to be identified, Vijayan also micromanaged things, like deputing three top civil servants from other departments to supply drinking water, food and medicines to relief camps, seeing that the round-the-clock rescue work was wearing down the district collectors.

On Friday, Communist Party of India legislator Saji Cherian told a television channel that if help did not arrive soon, thousands of people in his constituency would die. According to the official mentioned above, Vijayan quickly stepped in and got the defence ministry to help, and the navy boats were airlifted to the place.

When poor visibility from the choppers and lack of knowledge of the waterways slowed military operations, the decentralized local machinery stepped in to save lives, he said

With much of the local-level work decentralized, the rescue headquarters operating out of a corridor in a corner of Kerala’s secretariat had to take up only major, urgent cases. This is where principal secretary of disaster management, P.H. Kurian, has his desk. Outsiders are largely barred entry.

When Mint visited the spot on Saturday, the office was handling a new crisis. They wanted to bring down the water level at the Peringalkuthu Dam, but the dam sluice gate was stuck as a tree branch had fallen on it.

One police official who was familiar with the place said the pressure on the gates is high in that area and the local men do not have proper equipment to remove the branch. He suggested hiring a private crane and airlift its hook to the spot.

Finally, it wasn’t needed—local fire and rescue officials managed it. “But unlike in a military meeting, you don’t have to worry of protocols and stuff. We know each other, and nobody is working out of a manual," the police official said.

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