On Saturday, October 16, Maria James, a college student, and her friends were travelling back to Ranni after spending the puja holidays at another friendâ€™s place in Vandiperiyar. They were on a public bus, and due to lack of network connectivity, they had no idea what lay ahead. The rains that had been lashing Kerala for the past few days had caused a major landslide enroute and they found themselves stuck in a traffic jam near the hill station of Kuttikkanam in the Idukki district.
"We sat inside the bus from around 11 am till dusk hoping that the roads would clear,â€ť says the MSc student, who studies in St Thomas College, Ranni. â€śWord was going around that there was a landslide up ahead and people were working to clear the roads. So, we remained inside the bus.â€ť There was no option to turn back as a landslide had caused an electric pole to fall on the road behind, blocking the busâ€™s path.
"We were trapped in Kuttikkanam," says Maria. As night approached, she and the others on the bus started to get worried. They didnâ€™t know anyone there. Where would they get food? Would they have to spend the night on the bus?
Read: What caused Keralaâ€™s extreme rains in October? Experts explain
Kuttikkanam, is a small hill station situated at the meeting point of roads connecting three major towns â€“ Kumily, Kottayam and Kattappana. The people who live there largely keep to themselves.
But on Saturday, as both Kottayam and Idukki districts were facing heavy rains and landslides, the hill station turned into a haven for hundreds of travelers who were driving through the area and found themselves stuck, including Maria and her friends. â€śThe sub-inspector of police in Peermade took us to a girlsâ€™ hostel in Kuttikkanam. From that point onwards, we really had nothing to worry about, the people of the hill station had organised rooms and food for us,â€ť says Maria.
According to the local police, nearly 800-1,000 travellers, including daily commuters, vacationers from out of town and Sabarimala pilgrims, who were on their way to Thekkady, Munnar, Mundakayam and Kottayam found themselves stuck in Kuttikkanam on Saturday. Landslides had blocked the roads, and the number of vehicles gradually started increasing, leading to huge jams. The only road which was not blocked, was a potholed one that led to Kattappana.
"Traffic started building up after 10 am on Saturday when police blocked the road going to Mundakayam due to landslides. Travellers remained in their vehicles thinking the barricade would open. But the police couldn't allow cars to go past due to fear of more landslides. It was only after 5 pm that the police let some of them go past. Leaving Kuttikanam was also not an option for a lot of these travellers because the next town was flooded due to the heavy rains," says Binoj Devasia, a local restaurant owner.
"The few available lodges got filled immediately, and most travellers were stranded with nowhere to go or stay," he adds.
Soon, word spread that there were close to 1,000 people stuck without shelter in the hill station. Initially, restaurant owners in the area let weary travellers into their eateries so that they could eat and get some shelter from the rain. But, that wasn't a permanent solution since it was clear that the roads wouldnâ€™t open until the next day.
Kuttikkanam doesn't have many lodges, but what it has in plenty are residential colleges and schools, and the hostels were empty as most students had gone home for the Mahanavami holidays. The residents, police, District Collector Sheeba George and administrative staff of the schools and colleges came together, and the hapless travellers were slowly shifted to the hostels that are spread out across Kuttikkanam for the night.
According to the police, people were shifted to nearby institutions including the Model Residential School, Mar Baselios Christian College of Engineering and Technology, Marian College, St Joseph's LP School and SMS Club and Library between 11 am and 6 pm.
"We informed the local people that our hostels are open and empty. So, then, the residents would inform the people stuck on the road that hostels are available for them to stay the night. Our hostels accommodated at least 220 people that night," says Fr Soby Kannalil, a faculty member at Marian College.
The initial few travellers who came to the hostel were given a hot meal at the hostel mess. â€śWe hadn't prepared a lot because a majority of our students had gone back home for the holidays. For the rest, restaurants in the town remained open and provided food. For breakfast, we made sure to make extra food, so that everyone got to eat in the mess itself,â€ť says Fr Kannalil.
Travellers were also stuck in Pullupara â€“ a village near Kuttikkanam â€“ which was severely affected by rains. "The people stuck in Pullupara were helpless as their vehicles were trapped between two landslides. The Pullupara residents coordinated with us and brought them to the college to take shelter as well," adds Fr Kannalil.
Maria and her friends spent a comfortable night in the girlâ€™s hostel. "The next morning, the SI called to check on us and updated us about the situation.â€ť According to the police, the road was cleared on Sunday morning and the flood situation in Mundakayam had improved.
On October 17, the travellers, who had found food, shelter and hospitality in the tiny hill station of Kuttikkanam for the night, returned to their vehicles and continued on their journey.
(All images courtesy Sunil Varghese)