Kerala, after the flood: State must learn lessons from 2004 tsunami relief work in Tamil Nadu; task for rehab agencies mammoth

The floods battering Kerala take me back to the weeks I spent in the parts of Tamil Nadu worst affected by the December 2004 tsunami.

On the face of it, comparing a tsunami to floods may look as preposterous as comparing fracture to a scratch. But there are as many dissimilarities between the two disasters, as there are similarities at least in some aspects of rehabilitation that Tamil Nadu needed then and Kerala needs now.

Those grappling with the disaster in Kerala can learn from Tamil Nadu's experience with what went right and what didn't in the aftermath of tsunami.

In Tamil Nadu alone, tsunami killed as many as 7,000 people. However, despite the massive difference in the death toll, the task of rehabilitation that lies ahead of Kerala will be same, if not bigger, than what its neighbouring state had to face. What makes that a disturbing prospect is the very wide sweep of Kerala's tragedy, the enormity of which is perhaps little understood by people outside the state.

Just consider some of the daunting challenges the Kerala government faces:

  • After the floodwaters recede, nearly all the roads in the state will need to be cleaned up, repaired and sanitised and made safe for use, as nearly the whole of Kerala — or 12 of its 14 districts — have been under water. This would be a difficult task even for a developed nation with plentiful resources.
  • Clearing rubble from collapsed homes and landslides
  • Repairing and rebuilding a large number, still undetermined but perhaps running into lakhs, of homes
  • Bringing vast areas of agricultural land back under cultivation.
  • Helping an unknown but evidently huge number of people who lost most or all of their belongings and livelihood
  • Tackling health hazards that follow all major disasters which, if not addressed on a war-footing, may turn into epidemics.

And now imagine the stupendous task that lies ahead. Such is the extent of the catastrophe that has struck Kerala.

In contrast, the tsunami in Tamil Nadu was like a surgical strike by killer waves that struck relatively smaller places. Nagapattinam in coastal Tamil Nadu bore the brunt of the assault on the morning of 26 December, 2004, and that was where I was late that night. What I saw was beyond description. There was destruction and mayhem all round — a brand new Zen car was perched precariously on a wall as though it had been lifted and placed there for safekeeping. There was another car, this one on the road, but the roof, doors and seats were all gone. Only the steering wheel and dashboard remained.


NDRF and Army personnel help locals in clearing out roads. Image sources by Naveen Nair.

NDRF and Army personnel help locals in clearing out roads. Image sources by Naveen Nair.


The beach was not a beach any longer. It was filled with tattered clothes, utensils, helmets and vehicle number plates. The scenes which unfolded in the following days were even more chilling. I watched decomposed bodies being wrenched out of debris, and I heard story after story of people losing their homes, and watching their family members washed away.

But long before I reached Nagapattinam, the water had receded into the sea. This made it possible for officials, local residents, NGOs and volunteers to go around and gauge the extent of damage and examine what help would be needed. In Kerala, however, disaster management teams are still struggling to gain access to affected areas as the floodwaters have yet to recede.

Kerala's stubborn floodwaters

This is where the problem lies in Kerala — floodwaters have not only inundated much larger areas than the tsunami did in Tamil Nadu, they have also refused to budge for nearly two weeks, making even the job of rescuing the marooned tough. While helicopters have been rescue a limited number of people, big boats have been unable to enter small lanes, and the smaller ones that could come handy were able to take much fewer people.

But taking all this into consideration, we can see that the relief and rescue efforts in Kerala have been remarkable. At least, 8.5 lakh rescuers are in Kerala now in about 3,700 relief camps which have been set up across the state.


Aluva was one of the worst-hit areas in Kerala. Image/Naveen Nair

Aluva was one of the worst-hit areas in Kerala. Image/Naveen Nair


Army must help road clean-up

For starters, the task of making the roads fit to use after the flood water completely disappears is in itself a mammoth exercise, which was relatively easier in tsunami-hit areas. Tamil Nadu quickly deployed civic staff from unaffected districts to do this, but Kerala has no such luxury with all but two of its districts hit by floods. Besides, the state's civic employees may be beset with their own flood-related tragedies in their homes and families.

In tsunami-affected places, the receding water left behind an assortment of foul-smelling junk on roads as well as inside homes. That can be expected in Kerala, as is already being seen in some places. And at this point, the damage done to roads after being soaked in water for so long can only be imagined.

It might be a good idea if the state insists on getting help from the Army early on to tidy up the roads in a big way. The districts of neighbouring Karnataka and Tamil Nadu bordering Kerala must contribute civic staff to clean up and sanitise Kerala's roads. In the early stages of post-disaster relief, men and materials can help more than cash.

Entire India must join effort

Quite clearly, the challenge of rehabilitation in Kerala can't possibility be met by the Pinarayi Vijayan government alone without generous help from the Centre, other states, individual donors and volunteers on the field.

The most heartening thing in the aftermath of the Tamil Nadu tsunami was the help that poured in from across India. People cutting across political, linguistic, regional and religious divides rushed to Tamil Nadu's help. They considered Tamil Nadu's disaster to be their own personal tragedy.

The whole of India must once again come to yet another state battered by nature's fury.

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Author tweets @sprasadindia

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Updated Date: Aug 21, 2018 07:17:13 IST