Monsoon rains in the popular Indian tourist destination of Kerala subsided on Sunday, providing relief to families stranded by the worst floods in a century, while authorities warned of a possible outbreak of disease in emergency camps filled with hundreds of thousands of people.
The weakening of the heavy rains allowed the government to withdraw its red alert for every district in the flood-hit southwestern state that has been battered by incessant downpours since last week that have killed at least 196 people from August 8 onwards, many in landslides. The total death toll through this year’s monsoon season has now climbed over 400.
More than 800,000 people have sought shelter in relief camps over the past 10 days – part of a larger displacement of nearly two million people, which began with the monsoon three months ago, according to figures from the state government.
The lull in the rain over the weekend may yet prove temporary. The Indian Meteorological Department has forecast further rain over the next few days for several districts, which will complicate ongoing efforts to rescue those still marooned in their homes.
At a press conference on Saturday night, Pinarayi Vijayan, Kerala’s chief minister, said the state had suffered damage worth at least 195 billion rupees (dh10.2bn), according to a preliminary assessment. Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised five billion rupees (dh263m) in federal aid, Mr Vijayan reiterated his request for four times that amount.
“We are in the middle of a disaster,” Mr Vijayan said.
Thousands of people continue to be trapped in their waterlogged homes. In the town of Chengannur, by the swollen Pamba river, roughly 5,000 people are believed to be stranded. On Friday, Saji Cherian, Chengannur’s elected legislator, wept on television, asking for help.
“Please give us a helicopter,” he said. “I’m begging you. Please help me, the people in my place will die. Please help us. There’s no other solution. People have to be airlifted”.
Many places have proven impassable for the navy’s boats, which are too broad for the narrow, flooded streets and alleys of Kerala’s towns.
Outside Kerala’s municipality of Aluva, Arun Namboothiri’s family had been stuck for three days in the first floor of their house. On Saturday evening, finally, Mr Namboothiri said, local fishermen steered their boats into the suburb and rescued all 20 members of his family, as well as other residents in the area.
"They managed to get them to a relative's place nearby," he told The National. "Everyone is safe and well".
On Sunday, Mr Vijayan acknowledged the “tremendous help” provided by fishermen, promising to compensate them for their fuel and pay them 3,000 rupees (dh158) for every day of rescue work.
Although the state’s biggest civilian airports are still shut, flights are scheduled to resume out of Kochi Naval Base on Monday, boosting relief work.
State-run relief camps have been set up in schools, colleges and other public buildings across the state.
But with so many people packed into close quarters, surrounded by stagnant water, disease is a pressing concern, said Paul Chacko, an epidemiologist who lives and works in Kochi.
"Germs spread quickly in these conditions, and water-borne diseases like dysentery, typhoid and cholera are particular problems," Mr Chacko told The National. "The government will have to start thinking immediately about keeping places clean and dry, and keeping drinking water safe".
The pooled water across Kerala may also provide a habitat for mosquitoes, leading to an outbreak of diseases like dengue and chikungunya.
“The last thing the state needs during this period of reconstruction is something like an epidemic to flare up anywhere,” Mr Chacko said.
Anil Vasudevan, an official in Kerala’s health department, told Reuters on Saturday that three people infected with chickenpox had already been isolated in a relief camp near Aluva.
On Saturday, Mr Vijayan reassured reporters that the state had an ample stock of food. But Kerala faces shortages in medicines and fuel.
Petrol and diesel tanker trucks have been unable to move on the flooded roads, and many fuel stations are submerged. Even after the waters recede, it will take several days to clean up and resume normal operations, a Bharat Petroleum spokesperson told the news service Scroll.
At least 1,500 pharmacies around Kerala have been partially or fully submerged, according to the All Kerala Chemists and Drugs Association.
Once the floodwaters recede, and as people begin to move back to their homes, every Kerala village will receive a team led by a health inspector, to coordinate hygiene and cleanliness drives, Mr Vijayan said.
The end of the disaster was in sight, he added, and those who have risked their own health to help Kerala’s needy will be treated like heroes.
“As rescue forces from outside Kerala leave after their mission, let us give them a taste of Kerala’s famed hospitality, as a mark of our gratitude to them,” he said.