‘Nobody expected water to rise this high’

Prajakta Joshi
Monday, 2 September 2019

While the floods in Sangli and Kolhapur districts last month left homes, livelihoods and infrastructure wrecked, one thing that remained intact was the human spirit. In a candid conversation, Ashok Rokade of White Army in Kolhapur, the organisation that played a major role in the rescue and relief operations speaks to Sakal Times about the differences in the flood and rescue operation in 2019 compared to the 2005 flood. 

Kolhapur/Pune: While the floods in Sangli and Kolhapur districts last month left homes, livelihoods and infrastructure wrecked, one thing that remained intact was the human spirit. In a candid conversation, Ashok Rokade of White Army in Kolhapur, the organisation that played a major role in the rescue and relief operations speaks to Sakal Times about the differences in the flood and rescue operation in 2019 compared to the 2005 flood. 

How severe were the flood conditions in Kolhapur this year compared to the 2005 floods? How was the rescue operation carried out then and now? 
During the 2005 flood, the water level had increased to 46.5 feet. This time, it rose 10 feet more, to 56.5 feet. Nobody expected the water levels to rise this high. The river Panchaganga’s current was very forceful and thus it was challenging to carry out the rescue operations. 
However, the locals, NGOs along with the government accepted the challenge and tried to see to it that no life was lost. Locals were the ones who showed directions to rescuers from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) along with the Indian Navy and Army. 

What were some of the major challenges during the rescue? 
One major problems we faced was that earlier when we tried to evacuate homes in flood-prone areas, people refused to come with us as they anticipated the flood levels would be the same as in 2005. However, overnight, the water levels increased by at least 5 feet and then people understood the gravity of the situation and began calling us frantically. It was difficult to rescue them all at once because we had to travel 15 to 20 km for one ride in the flooded river. One boat could hardly make four-five rounds. People were scared. We had to carry out the rescue operation under immense pressure. 

Along with severity of the calamity, in the last 15 years, technology too has seen a great change. How helpful was the technological advancement in the rescue operation? 
In 2005, we had rubber boats provided by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). They were flexible and could enter the most narrow areas compared to the tin or wooden boats. This time, the boats we used were even better. The boats of German-make that were brought would not get punctured easily, and the use of more efficient engines with 25 to 40 Horsepower made the process of rescue operations faster. The volunteers of White Army have been participating in the rescue operations at the disaster sites across the country for the several years, so they were trained. The collective efforts ensured there was no casualty this time. 

How many White Army volunteers were involved in the rescue operations? 
Around 200 volunteers were constantly part of the rescue and relief operations. In addition, around 800 have been working with relief teams on and off. Several were on the boats in which we rescued people in Kolhapur city and surrounding villages. Our volunteers did everything from showing directions to NDRF, to carrying people on their shoulders to land them safely in the boats. After the floodwater receded, our volunteers worked extensively for cleaning up the villages, disposing of garbage and corpses of animals, distributing aid and medicines to people. Some of our volunteers are still in villages in Shirol, where the floodwater receded last.

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