The floods which hit Kerala in August 2018 has killed more than 370 people, displaced over 800,000, and led to an estimated infrastructure loss of $3 billion. In response to this unprecedented tragedy, there came to fore many instances of ingenuity and collaboration, which allowed for the generosity of individuals to scale. These lessons learnt however are likely to be forgotten as the floods recede from the front pages.
This piece is an early attempt to document the diverse types of responses we saw, many of which ought to be studied and improved upon so that they can be replicated across other Indian states, when such a need may arise.
Coordination of relief
Prasanth Nair, a Delhi-based IAS officer, along with him team of 6000 volunteers, under the banner of Compassionate Keralam, collaborated with Bhoomika Trust (who worked on the Chennai floods), OrisysIndia, Manorama, SysFore Technologies (Bangalore), Network Redux, Calicut Medical College, Phykon, IIM Kozhikode, Infosys (Bangalore) and Amrita University to set up call centres with 100 live lines. These call centres received rescue requests and relayed them to respective district-level control rooms. The team took the additional responsibility to verify the details and do the necessary follow-up, till the rescue was completed. “For call centres, we used the software called Exotel. The advantage was that if they had one line, they could route it to 30 virtual lines,” said the head of the Technical team. The team’s volunteers also mined and scraped the data through simultaneous communication channels - WhatsApp, Slack, Google docs and Spreadsheets. To simplify this process, the team also came up with a uniform SOS format.
Creating a fool-proof system in an emergency like this can be a daunting task. Despite this well-coordinated system, there was about 25% of duplication of cases as there were other groups sharing and ‘escalating’ the same information on multiple social media channels. She adds, “Even if there was duplication, at the end of the day, our priority was that the message was conveyed to concerned parties.” Overall, the team’s call centres processed over 20,000+ calls.
Logistics: Learning by doing
A disaster of this scale throws up unforeseeable new challenges. Hiran Venugopalan, a designer based in Bangalore who was coordinating a collection hub to transport relief materials from Bangalore to Kerala stated how they heavily relied on social media as a source for accessing immediate requests for essential supplies from relief camps. But at the same time, he noted how information was getting shared even after the request has been outdated, which eventually slowed down the distribution process. He added, “We can’t blame people; they are sharing it for good. But sharing old data slows down the process. It’s always good to know when data was created and if it’s valid before sharing.”
On the ground, Sujith Chandran, an agribiz and social entrepreneur who was coordinating relief activities in Thrissur and Alappuzha districts, noted another set of challenges. Families who had voluntarily opted to stay at their stranded homes blocked the trucks and vehicles, which affected the timely distribution of supplies to relief camps. For future efforts, Chandran believes that volunteer networks and NGOs who transport relief materials ought to find ways to coordinate with local law enforcement.
Inclusive design for better reach
As the rescue and relief operations progressed towards post-flood recovery, one of the key challenges was to reach the flood hit families returning home with quick and reliable information on safety, health and hygiene. The traditional ways of dissemination through posters and government circulars have undergone a shift with majority of the public being active users of social media. Anand A, a designer based in Chennai took to this challenge by mobilizing a team of 30+ designers and 20 translators who aimed to convert scholarly information on flood recovery to easily accessible and downloadable designs, available for free. This resulted in the KeralaFloods Infographics Page. “Good design needn’t be fancy. It should be consistent, minimal and communicative,” says Anand, summing up his team’s philosophy.
What was also striking about this initiative was its focus on migrant workers in Kerala. To this end, the flyers on this page are available in languages like Hindi, Tamil, Bengali and Kannada in addition to English and Malayalam. Though this effort was a direct response to the Kerala floods, these designs in various regional languages can serve as a national repository of information, which can be availed easily during the time of other similar disasters across India.
Improving mental health
A little noticed consequence of the floods is the mental stress on those who have lost all their possessions. A wide-ranging set of emotional distress often follows. “Just 2 days after the relief efforts are getting wrapped up, we have already heard about 3 reported suicides. We as a society are taught to be resilient and to ignore emotional distress or mental well-being”, says Jina Dcruz, a US based behavioral scientist. A team of expert volunteers that included Jina, trained in psychology, bioinformatics, and social work, created a hub to pool all relevant resources related to mental health. The initiative – now called “Kerala Floods Mental Health Support Group”— began to working closely with the Government of Kerala. Groups like Jina’s supplemented the Governmental efforts by creating a database of qualified professionals and linking them up with relevant district nodal offices which directly interacted with the affected families.
The writer is a development practitioner and writer based in New York City. She has served as a policy consultant with the United Nations (UN).