Bengaluru: Pummeled by a return of vigorous rains, Kerala witnessed catastrophic scenes on Wednesday in what is probably its worst flood since 1924. The rains killed 18 people in 12 hours, raising the total death toll to 67, and left thousands stranded, and also forced the closure of the international airport at Kochi.
Almost all districts in Kerala received an unusual more than 100mm rainfall throughout the day, forcing the state to open 33 of its 39 dams, a first in its history. Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan cut short Independence Day celebrations, cancelled all official events and sat down with top officials charting relief and rescue operations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Rajnath Singh have assured all help.
By Wednesday noon, the increased spill from bordering Mullaperiyar Dam in Tamil Nadu was filling up Cheruthoni Dam in Kerala’s Idukki district, forcing the state to open the dam for the second time in about half a century. The surging waters washed away resorts, churches, roads and other properties in downstream Munnar, the most attractive hill town for tourists in Kerala, practically cutting it off from the rest of the state.
About 100km away at Kochi airport, a major gateway to Kerala, was so flooded by noon, authorities had to pump out water from its runways. The government shut down the airport until Saturday, when the rains are expected to subdue. By Wednesday night, more than 150,000 people who were evacuated have been housed in relief camps, said the government.
In a press meet, Vijayan said the situation is gravely serious. All 14 districts are on red alert, but the hilly districts such as Idukki and Wayanad, where most deaths happened, and the low-lying central and southern belt such as Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta and Thiruvananthapuram districts, remains the most hit with flooding and landslides, as per local reports.
The floods have destroyed hundreds of houses, damaged tens of thousands of both private and public properties and caused significant damage to Kerala’s major crops, such as spices and rubber. Kerala lost more than ₹ 3,000 crore in 24 hours, said a senior government official, who did not want to be named.
The plantation industry, the biggest private employer in the formal sector, alone is staring at a total loss of over ₹ 900 crore, as per Vinay Raghavan, vice president of Harrisons Malayalam Plantation. It is unclear how the state, already burdened with huge debts, will cope with the losses, he said.
Chief minister Vijayan said his primary focus is to rescue stranded people and ensure relief measures such as drinking water at the camps. He has requested the home minister to send additional teams of army, NDRF and Army Engineering Corps to the state. In a tweet, the CMO’s office said a C-17 aircraft was also requested for transporting equipment to the affected areas. More dinghy boats were also needed.
“Had a detailed discussion with Kerala CM Shri Pinarayi Vijayan regarding the unfortunate flood situation in the state. Centre stands firmly with the people of Kerala and is ready to provide any assistance needed," Modi said on Wednesday on his Twitter account.
Meanwhile, the floods also caused a tiff between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, as the latter was unwilling to lower spill from the 119-year old Mullaperiyar Dam. The venerable old dam was posing a danger to Kerala with its increased spill after reaching its maximum height of 142 feet. By evening, the inflow of water to Mullaperiyar had turned much more than the outflow. Vijayan informed Tamil Nadu to intervene immediately to lower the water-level in the dam, but received no response. He then met governor P. Sathasivam and dialled Singh to intervene in the matter, after which Tamil Nadu agreed to increase the spill.
Yet, the worse may not be over. The meteorological centre has predicted heavy rains accompanied with gusty winds, with speeds reaching 60kmph, in all districts of Kerala until Wednesday night.