The building was surrounded by water, but the families didn’t need to be rescued as they planned and stocked up, based on one man's directions.

This Aluva mans planning allowed 8 families to survive the Kerala floods at homeJames Joseph
news Kerala Floods Sunday, September 02, 2018 - 15:14

The only time Aluva resident and founder of Jackfruit365 James Joseph lost his nerve during the week he and his family spent at their home during the Kerala floods was on August 17. “I had passed through the doors of the terrace on the 11th floor several times that day. And just ten minutes after we went, a security guard was pushing it open when he saw some movement. It turned out to be snake,” James narrates.

“It was very puzzling. I knew snakes come with flood water, but how it climbed on to the 11th floor, that too onto the door, was scary. And I thought, if one [snake] has reached the finish line, how many more are on the way?” the 47-year-old says.

They later ascertained that the snake could have come in through the pipes and ducts, or that a bird of prey had picked it up and then dropped it on to their terrace. “Still, we closed the ducts on every floor to be safe,” he adds.

James, his family of five, and their seven neighbouring families were stranded for close to a week in their 10-storey building in Aluva, even as rescue operations happened on war-footing around. There was eight feet of water around them, effectively trapping them in the building. However, the families did not need food or medicine and didn’t need to be rescued, and preferred to stay in their homes until the water receded – all thanks to the planning and stocking up they had done before on James’ guidance.

The early signs

James says that he realised very early on that if there was a normal monsoon this year, water levels would rise and that the Idamalayar dam may have to be opened.

“The peak season for jackfruit is March, April and May. And in April and May, we had rains in Kerala. So when we got the jackfruit this time, it had more water content that usual. We couldn’t even use most of the fruits. I realised then that the earth had already soaked up a lot of water, and if we have a normal monsoon from June, it won’t be able to take more and water levels will rise,” James recounts, talking about the first sign.

Further, he had the prior experience of flooding in 2013, when the Idamalayar dam was opened. “So we knew what could happen and how we should prepare if there was a warning,” James says.

The alerts and the preparation

James says that it was on August 8 they received the first warning that the shutters of Idamalayar may have to be opened.

On August 9, both James and his wife, a doctor, took off from work because they realised the situation could get serious. “At 8 am, they opened Idamalayar’s shutters. But at around 7 am, the water level in Periyar had already risen by a metre. So we realised that the river will overflow its banks and there will be flooding,” James recalls.

Aluva Palace when the first red alert came on August 9

The first thing they did was to secure the basement, which was their building’s weakest point in 2013. They moved the vehicles to the ground floor and closed the iron shutters to the basement.

The next day (August 10), he and seven other families in the building, most of whom are retired and senior citizens, started stocking up. They ensured that they had plenty of drinking water, dry food, and medicines. They also kept aside two gas cylinders in case someone ran out, and ensured that their water tanks were to their full capacity. They also got extra diesel for the generator.

The flooding

Though the flood water was already wreaking havoc around them, August 16, 17, and 18 were the toughest days for James and his neighbours.

There was around eight feet of water around them – the ground floor and basement were both flooded.

Aluva Palace when water levels at their peak on August 17

“But this was something we were prepared for. What we did not take into account was losing power. We shut off the power to avoid short circuits but we had to turn off the generator as well because the water had reached there,” James says.

Because they did not have power, James and his family started consuming whatever was refrigerated so that it would not go bad. Families also shared their food and supplies with the security staff.

“We had also stocked up on vegetables and fruits that have a longer shelf life like pomegranates and pulses, beans etc. We were cooking our meals fresh and consuming them,” he shares.

By August 18, they were starting to run out of non-drinking water. And while their building had a fire tank, James was opposed to the idea of the security staff pumping it into the water tanks. “I saw people being pushed out of their homes around us in cooking vessels. Helicopters were rushing past us airlifting people. Things were getting worse. And while we had been surviving reasonably comfortably so far, the last thing I wanted was an injury,” James says.

However, they came up with an ingenious way to address the water scarcity. “We connected the hose to the fire hydrant on each floor, and since the pipe is really long, we could take that inside homes and fill up water. This way we could use water from the fire tank,” James reveals.

How James and his neighbours used the fire tank water

It was finally on August 19 that water levels went down by two feet and on August 20, tall vehicles like jeeps and lorries could reach them. Three families moved out then. James and his family stayed there till August 21, until the couple, their three daughters, and James’ in-laws who stay on the fifth floor, arranged for a vehicle and went to their ancestral home in Koothattukulam. They came back to Aluva on Saturday.

Working together

Apart from the planning, what helped the residents of the building was working together and using what they had judiciously.

They shared power banks and used phones sparingly. “Every morning, I would just update on Facebook that we were fine. I told people that my phone was on but not to call since it would reduce the charge,” James shares.

Once the helicopter rescue started, James and his daughters would go to the terrace and indicate with thumbs up that they were okay and did not need rescue.

A Navy helicopter dropping food for residents of a nearby building

“I think it was a blessing in disguise that on August 15, when the flooding started, many people were at home and together because it was a public holiday. Once you know where your loved ones are, you can concentrate on preparing rather than being anxious about their whereabouts,” James notes.

Even during this trying time, James and his family tried to make things as normal as possible. “My in-laws have dinner with us every day. Since we lost power and the lift wasn’t working, we prepared food and went down to their house. Continuing small family rituals like this helped everyone feel normal,” he says.

James is also happy that his daughters – aged 10, 14, and 17 – were part of this. “They saw how we prepared and survived. This was like survival training for them,” James says.

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