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Flooding Displaces 800,000 In Southern Indian State


It is monsoon season in India, and parts of the country's south are underwater. More than 350 people have died in the southern state of Kerala. These are the worst floods there in a century. NPR's Lauren Frayer is in Mumbai and joins us now. First question, Lauren - is it still raining?

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It is. It's pretty much been raining since June and will do so through September. It's monsoon season. But the southern state of Kerala - that's several hundred miles south of where I'm talking to you now from Mumbai - it has been abnormally hard-hit. It's had three times the average rainfall for the first half of August. And that's compared to, you know, a regular monsoon season.

It's triggered landslides that have covered roads. Jets parked at Kerala's main airport had water lapping up underneath their wings. For the past week, people have been posting SOS messages on social media. There was one video I saw of a man inside his home, water up to his neck, pleading for help.

Now, finally, fortunately, that rain has let up. No heavy rain is forecast for this week. A red alert has been lifted. And so this is moving into a cleanup operation. As floodwaters recede, authorities are surveying the extent of the damage and the extent of that loss of life.

MARTIN: I mean, we all know what the devastation looks like after massive flooding. We have seen it in American cities, you know, over the course of several years. So you say that it - now it's a cleanup operation, but I imagine that's just the beginning of a really long, complicated endeavor.

FRAYER: That's right. Let me give you an idea of the scale of this. So Kerala has more than 35 million people. It's about the size - a little bit smaller in terms of population than California. About 800,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, many airlifted from rooftops. That's about half the number of people as were evacuated from Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina. Survivors are now in relief camps, thousands of them all over the state. People are huddled in sleeping bags on the floor of aircraft hangars and other public buildings. They want to get home. They want to see what's left of their homes.

Also, there's a threat of disease. You know, as more - as people stay in those camps for prolonged periods of time, there's a threat of disease spreading through those camps. There was an outbreak of chicken pox in one camp. People had to be isolated. And people are worried about waterborne disease now.

MARTIN: So who is spearheading the relief operation? I mean, is it the central government, is it NGOs, charities - what?

FRAYER: It's sort of all of the above, yeah. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to Kerala over the weekend to survey damage. At one point, his helicopter got grounded because of torrential rain. And we thought he might get stranded there. He was able to return to the capital. Modi pledged about $70 million in aid from the federal budget. Soldiers have been deployed. Coast guards have been deployed.

They're dropping bags of food from helicopters. They're working primarily on first restoring phone lines, restoring fuel supplies, electricity. Airports are beginning to reopen for cargo flights. Trains have been added carrying tankers of clean water. But this is going to take time. I mean, electricity poles have literally floated away. Walls of buildings have collapsed.

MARTIN: So, I mean, it's worth asking. What made this part of India so vulnerable to this kind of flooding?

FRAYER: Yeah. I mean, it's ironic 'cause Kerala is actually known for some of the best infrastructure in India. But three times the amount of rain is a whole lot.

MARTIN: Right.

FRAYER: And authorities have opened dams. These erratic spikes in rain with - you know, even within the monsoon season are becoming much more common.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Lauren Frayer - thanks so much, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.