Often we read or see on television, the devastations caused by floods, earthquakes and other natural calamities. Even as uniformed personnel, no matter how many drills and exercises we do, one is never prepared to combat those. Especially, some human factors always lingers on many years after the worst has happened.
Think of a day when all your materialistic possessions are suddenly taken away. You are left without insurance or help or perhaps even a roof over your head. Doesn’t it send a shiver down the spine? As with most calamities, it is the poor that bear the brunt.
I had witnessed some of these during the flash floods in Karwar in October 2009. The quiet dignity with which those villagers bore the brunt and lost the little they had, was heart-breaking. That day changed me as a person, reinforcing the belief that in every soul resides human kindness and fortitude. Despite the enormous tragedy, the experience of the floods have been a source of strength for me.
The Karwar Naval base is the largest project by the Indian Navy. It is as the name suggests, near about 8Kms from the old Karwar Port which is at the mouth of the Kali river. It is not far from where the 21 year old Rabindranath Tagore spent a few months of bliss with his brother, the then collector of Uttar Kannada District. The main Karwar beach is named after Tagore, The RT Beach. “COMINKAR” is a naval acronym, which when expanded means Commodore in Charge Karwar. I was the last COMINKAR. The Navy upgraded the post to a Rear Admiral in October 2011 and the acronym auto-fossilised.
It was an unusually wet beginning for October. The Uttar Kannada District had already received its average rainfall and dams were full. On the night of 1st October, I received a telephone call from the Secretary in Bangalore requesting for Search and Rescue (SAR) assistance in the nearby Gadag district. The rivers in the district were in spate; several villagers were marooned and some were missing. The SAR team comprising a Diving team and a Medical Assistant rushed to the location within a few hours.
The next morning around 07.00 hours, my wife Anju commented that the rains were like never before… an incessant and heavy downpour. I told her that I had seen rains in Panchgani, Mahabaleshwar and Lonavala and this was quite normal. I thought that it might be a good idea to do a recce and check with the Officer of the Day, how the SAR team was doing in Gadag district.
As I drove the Sumo to the Headquarter, there was severe waterlogging. For a moment I thought that the vehicle might stall. Anju was right; this was very strange weather which seemed to have no mercy. I got to the Headquarters and was confirmed that Karwar and its adjacent areas had been hit by flash floods.
The Base itself had been affected. We were called upon to help with search and rescue in the vicinity. For the next 48 hours, teams from the Base helped numerous villagers to safety; some could even retrieve their belongings. There was a landslip which had destroyed several houses and buried 21 villagers. A team from the Base was the first responder.
The National Highway 17 which passed near the Eastern perimeter of the Base had numerous landslips. An alternate route was provided for the traffic through the Base. Significant number of officers had been affected by the flood but they all reported on duty promptly. The SAR effort was sustained without a single casualty in the vicinity of the Base. Some of my compatriots even shared baby food with the stranded travelers.
Never had I witnessed such fury by nature.
I had skirted a cyclone, when the seas tossed our ship like a small ball. At any moment the ship’s engines could stall and all of us would be at the mercy of the sea. But this was innocuous in comparison. Rains were followed by swelling streams, rising waters, stronger currents. The water level rose silently as we slept, oblivious of the impending danger. Houses and property were inundated. The villagers lost everything they had. The KUCHA houses were damaged beyond repair. The little property they had were destroyed or swept away by the flood waters.
One day after, the water receded and we surveyed the perimeter of the Base. A farmer offered us tea. As we sipped on the hyper sweetened liquid, I could not help but wonder whether it would be a start from scratch for him and his tribe. The farmers and fisherman folk are the hardiest kind. But none of them had witnessed such a devastating flood in living memory.
On the morning of October the Naval Base region received about 240mm of rain in just three hours. This made a total of 450 mm in a 24 hour period. The dams and reservoirs` were already full prior to the incident, the region having witnessed a normal monsoon. The near CLOUD BURST conditions coincided with Spring tides which prevented run off into the sea.
The fact is that each monsoon, even the failed ones, bring seasonal flooding to certain flood prone areas. Perhaps there is an opportunity in every monsoon to collect and harness these waters.
After all water is going to be the most sought after commodity; or isn’t it already.