“When the flood hit, the water rose from my feet to my waist in five minutes,” says Kasturi, a 20-year-old mother who is nine months pregnant. “My husband put our two daughters on his shoulders, one on each side. We walked about a mile in the water.”
Like tens of thousands of impoverished villagers in Andhra Pradesh, an area in southeastern India, Kasturi and her family escaped the flood with their lives and nothing else. Most people from Kasturi’s village went to a railway platform that stood above the floodwaters in a neighboring district, sleeping there until the waters receded.
When they went back after three days, there was little to salvage. “Our house is mud now,” says 20-year-old Adam, another villager. “Just completely filled with mud.” Some managed to dig up a few pots, pans or the jute sifters they need to sift rice.
The villagers had almost nothing to begin with. Mainly lower-caste tenant farmers who face discrimination related to education and jobs, they make their living by harvesting cotton, rice or other grains. Food is so scarce and precious that a 50-pound sack of rice left behind during the initial flooding was worth trying to retrieve despite the danger of returning. One man in the village of Rampurum got his family to safety, but returned to his house for sacks of grain. Days later, searchers found his body; his hut’s wall collapsed while he was inside. He was one of more than 200 people who died; many could not be buried because the ground was still swamped.
Kasturi, Adam and hundreds of others created a tent camp on the side of a road, ripping up old saris to tie sticks together for frames, which they covered with any material available—old feed sacks, cloths, or plastic sheets. Sitting on the dirt floor of her makeshift hut, Kasturi says she’s not sure what she’ll do when she goes into labor—there’s no medical care nearby, and no money to pay for it if there was. The ration and health cards the government issues to impoverished people were swept away by the flood, and many clinics and stores are waterlogged anyway.
The only work most villagers know is farm work, but there won’t be any for months, at least. Thousands of acres of rice—this year’s crop was unusually good before the flood hit—are gone, the fields sodden and filled with sand that will be hard to remove in coming years. The workers earned one to two dollars a day spending 10 hours in the field, but even that money is beyond their reach now. “We don’t know what is next,” says a woman in the tent camp. “We may search for peanuts that we can sell.”
The lucky few who owned animals saw those swept away as well. Thousands of cow, goat and sheep carcasses littered the land when the flood receded, breeding disease. Father Jijo Murthanatt, a young parish priest in the town of Kosigi, went out with villagers to find the animals, load them into trucks and bury them: “It was terrible,” he says. Even in villages where some houses can be saved, the stench of decomposition is so strong that villagers have not yet returned.
Father Jijo and his fellow Carmelites, along with local nuns, worked quickly to feed the flood survivors. “We walked through the water carrying hot rice,” says Sister Lilly Lobo, a sister of St. Joseph of Tarbes. “The people just stood there staring at us, not making a sound. They couldn’t imagine this would happen to them—the entire place flooded in half an hour.”
Catholic Relief Services is working with the priests and nuns to help 7,400 families in this region alone, and thousands more in the neighboring state of Karnataka. Families will receive tarps and rope, cloth, cookware, water jars and water purification tablets, among other necessities.
The aid will help for the short term, but the long term looks grim unless more is done. “To see people suffering like that—what to do?” says Sister Lilly. Roopali Darsha, a coordinator for CRS India, is worried too. “The flood survivors don’t have a future,” she says. “No jobs, no crops, no food.”
– Laura Sheahen, CRS regional information officer, reporting from India
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