Kavalappara, Nilambur: A 357-member strong team has been on a mission for the last seven days to locate people who went missing from Kavalappara village in Kerala's Malappuram district after the landslides on August 8.
Equipped with earth movers, concrete cutters, sledgehammers and chainsaws, they have been culling the debris 11 hours every day, ignoring warnings of further landslides and floods.
Little wonder, then, the operation has been hailed as the 'biggest search mission in the history of Kerala.'
The operation began a day after the landslide tore Kavalappara apart, killing many people and destroying several houses. As many as 34 bodies have been recovered as on August 15. Search is on to retrieve the remaining 28 'missing' villagers.
The search team has a unique composition. It comprises members from various State and Central government departments. At the helm of the affairs is the Kerala Fire and Rescue Services, which has pressed 150 personnel into service. They are supported by a 150-member team from the Kerala Police and 57-member group from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF).
V Siddhakumar, Palakkad regional head of the Fire and Rescue Services, oversees the operations. He co-ordinates the activities with Malappuram and Palakkad district fire officers, Moosa Vadakkethil and Arun Bhaskar.
How do they work?
The landslide-hit spot has been divided into six zones, based on the location of the houses.
“An officer leads the operations in each zone. The lead officers coordinate with the control room if they need more equipment and personnel,” M Abdul Gafoor, an officer with the Fire and Rescue Services told Onmanorama, during a break from the operations on Thursday.
“We begin our operations everyday hoping to find a survivor. Unfortunately, we could not find any so far,” he said.
Fire and Rescue Services team was the first to reach Kavalappara after the tragedy. “We began operations a day after the disaster (August 9). The delay was caused by traffic disruption. At present firefighters from Malappuram, Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Thrissur and Palakkad districts are working here. We start operations at 7:30am and wind them up at 6:30pm,” said Gafoor.
Deputy commandant Vinoj Joseph, who heads the NDRF team, said he has never seen a displacement as huge as Kavalappara. “We are searching the places where houses once stood, but all of them have been displaced. Bodies are often found far away from the houses,” he said.
Vinoj minced no words while describing the challenges. “It was very difficult to enter the debris in the initial days. We couldn't take earth movers to the site. We made temporary bridges using the trunks of the uprooted trees to take earth movers,” he said.
Both Gafoor and Vinoj said Kavalappara operation is risky because of threats of further landslides during the rain. Search operations were suspended twice on Wednesday due to rain.
Another serious issue, according to them, is the unavailability of advanced equipment, such as ground penetrating radar and life detectors.
Deputy Superintendent of Police K A Suresh Babu said search officials are risking their lives. “It is not advisable to use so many equipment in the debris filled with soil and mud. But we don't have any other option but to continue,” he said.
The team members do not know how many days the operations will continue.
“We are recovering bodies everyday in Kavalappara. That is why we are continuing the search. It is impossible to call off the search at this moment,” said Vinoj.