The silence in the air is broken only by the unvarying drone of an excavator at work. Around it, a group of rescue personnel works at a feverish pace to clear debris in the search for survivors and bodies.
It is the fourth day of the search operation in Thora, a hillside village in Virajpet taluk of Kodagu district in Karnataka, after a devastating landslide wiped out houses, trees, electric poles and acres of coffee plants on Friday.
“I was heading back home from my shop when I heard a loud sound and the ground started shaking. I knew at that moment that this was not rain or wind. Something bad had happened,” recalls Prabhu Kumar, a 45-year-old resident of the village.
“I stepped into the rising water and set off running towards my house. At this moment, there was complete silence and when I reached the road to my house, there was nothing. The top of the hill had reached my feet,” he says.
Prabhu’s family, including his wife Anusuya (40), mother Devaki (65) and two daughters Amrita (15) and Aditya (10), were inside the house at the time and went missing after the landslide struck. His wife’s body was found on Monday, the third body to be recovered from the rubble, while seven others are missing.
Other residents of the village described the noise heard around the time of the landslide as a thunderclap, an explosion and a car accident. “Whatever it was, surely it was a sound we had never heard before. We packed our belongings and ran for our lives,” says Erappa VH, a 52-year-old resident of the village.
Erappa and around a hundred other residents fled Thora and camped in higher ground in an area called Korthikaadu. They erected a tarpaulin sheet to protect themselves from the rain and sent frantic distress calls to the district control room informing officials about the landslide and requesting a rescue group to be dispatched immediately. “We thought we survived the heavy rains but then the ground began to shake and there was nothing we could do,” says Erappa.
By all accounts, the landslide took place without warning and within minutes. When help arrived in the form of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) rescue personnel, 5 hours had passed since the landslide. The survivors were rescued on Friday evening and housed in a relief camp opened nearby in the Government High School in Heggala.
“We managed to evacuate people but there was a clamour to go back to the site of the landslide and search for survivors. We have been searching since Friday and we have found three bodies including one on Monday,” says Abi NS, an official from the NDRF.
Search for survivors hampered
Two teams of the specialised disaster rescue force were pressed into service to search for survivors but the relentless rain turned the area affected by the landslide into a pool of slush and mud. The search was also hampered by the uneven terrain and increased mist in the evening.
The NDRF personnel canvassed the area of the landslide and zeroed in on the spots where household items were seen. “We were looking for traces of a household – utensils, cupboards, sofas – and searching for survivors wherever such items were found,” says Abi.
Deputy Commissioner Annies Joy, SP Suman DP and other officials in Thora
Villagers mourn loss of three of their own
Throughout the search, Prabhu and 45-year-old Paramesh VM, another resident of the village, were a constant presence. Paramesh’s wife Mamata (40) and daughter Likhita (14) went missing on the day of the landslide.
Paramesh and his son Harshith (18) were also outside their house when the landslide occurred and ran for their lives. The duo returned to their house frantically searching for their family members. Harshit managed to help a neighbour and friend Darshan out of the rubble and asked rescue teams to search at a spot where he believed his house had been. Rescue groups recovered two dead bodies – that of Mamata and Likhita – from the rubble on Sunday.
Prabhu Kumar (left) being consoled by residents of Thora at his wife's funeral
On Monday, the dead body of Anusuya, Prabhu’s wife, was found around noon. A funeral conducted in the evening was attended by several residents of Thora, including the inconsolable Prabhu. “There is no trace of my family today. There is no evidence of what my parents built, there is no evidence of what our family did. There is nothing left anymore but I will be at the site of the landslide until my daughters are found,” he says in defiance.
Landslides, a grim reminder of 2018 disaster in Kodagu
The landslide in Thora was preceded by a landslide in Korangala village on Thursday, where five people lost their lives. The disaster evoked memories of the landslides in the hilly district around the same time last year, in which 18 people were killed and more than 7,000 displaced.
While the landslides in 2018 took place mostly in Somwarpet and Madikeri taluks, this year the landslides have struck in the southern part of the district, in and around Virajpet taluk. Virajpet received 905 mm rainfall in the last seven days, which was 728% more than the normal rainfall. Thirty-two areas in Virajpet and 30 areas in Madikeri taluks were hit by floods.
In all, 45 relief camps were opened in the district with more than 7,800 people sheltered in them. Nine deaths were reported, including 5 people due to the landslide in Korangala, 3 people due to the landslide in Thora and 1 more due to floods in Kattemadu. Rescue and relief efforts are being conducted by NDRF personnel, Garuda forces and police officials.
The spell of rain intensified early on Friday morning, eventually leading to the landslide in Thora. 382 people from Thora and its neighbouring areas were evacuated and sheltered in the relief camp in Heggala. “We have provided kits with kitchen items like rice, toor dal and oil along with clothes for everyone. We are not in urgent need of any item at the moment,” says Jyoti, who is coordinating relief at the camp.
Relief center at Government High School, Heggala, Kodagu
With a few more days of rainfall predicted, the relief camps opened in Kodagu are set to remain open but unlike last year when floods and landslides caught the administration unprepared, the places for relief camps were identified in advance this year and kept ready. Mock drills were conducted and an NDRF team was kept on standby in the district. Excavators were placed in areas vulnerable to landslides, a move that has helped the district authorities clear piled up mud quicker.
But even the best laid plans are helpless in front of nature and within an hour on Friday, a part of Thora was reduced to rubble.
Every day since then, residents of the village have formed a human outline on the boundary of the area struck by landslides, speaking in hushed tones and watching on in hope and fear, as rescue officials attempt to recover survivors and bodies.
“We will be here till everyone missing is found. We are anguished that no one saw this coming and that we could not save the people here. Without warning, life in our village has changed irreversibly and taken people from us. But we will stay with our people and rebuild,” says Erappa.