The Deluge, then the Rising Waters of the Kelani Ganga


My friend was entrapped and housebound first because of the incessant rain on Monday May 15 and the next day, and then from Tuesday night onwards till Sunday May 22 by the flood waters of the Kelani Ganga. She lives in Buthgamuwa in her very gracious ancestral home with its portico in front, open veranda at the back, bedrooms on either side of the very spacious sitting and dining rooms, all under a high wood-ceilinged roof. Modern conveniences have been added on but the charm and majesty of the old family house is retained. A broad road fronts her house with a lane running down to the right of it which meets and lane at the back of the house.

We three friends invited her for lunch and requested she recounts her misadventure.

Her story in her words

"The storm rain seemed extra vicious pelting us that entire Sunday - May 15 - and the next day. I never miss church on Sunday but very reluctantly had to stay home when I saw the front garden at least three inches under water. It was worse in the back garden. We did not expect trouble but mercifully stocked up on candles, kerosene for lamps and lanterns which we cleaned and got ready, and provisions; not in excess though.

"We then heard that the Kelani Ganga was fast rising and on Wednesday morning when I awoke after very disturbed sleep I saw the back garden completely submerged in dirty water and in front, though the road was clear, the garden sloshed with water. That evening it reached the front portico – three and a half feet high - just coming in to wet it as the waters reached their highest. We were saved, our furniture etc I mean, and we decided there was no need to take precautionary measures. The 1989 flood was worse. Then, some men who took shelter in our front portico helped me to secure my piano and fridge, the first on a bed on which a strong plank was placed and the fridge on a table, both firmly tied. This time, as I said, we did not move furniture about. The rise of water was not so sudden and severe.

"By now power was cut, so no telephone, lights, TV. We had been fairly prepared for this, but never thought it would last a week, Tuesday 17 to Wednesday 25. Restoring electricity was on a staggered basis. We were very careful with use of cell phones. No one complained since this outage was to save lives. Mercifully our toilets worked. That was a problem to many others.

"The water kept rising and the event of Wednesday was the unloading of a Navy boat by armed forces personnel onto the waist deep stretch of water that was the lane behind the house. The boat was brought in the back of a huge vehicle and those who came with it and locals helped to unload the boat and send it down into the water. It capsized and more work followed to bail out the water. I was busy because I made coffee for the men battling with the boat. We gave a lunch of sorts – noodles.

"We phoned a cousin living in the vicinity, lower level, knowing she would be in trouble. We could not get her. Later that Wednesday, as we sat on our back verandah we saw a boat go past with her seated in it and seven others who had taken refuge in her home. Mercifully the boat had come their way and their shouting attracted the men in it. The railing of the upper storey of her home had to be broken to get her into the boat. We called out to her and she was carried to our verandah. Fortunately, the seven with her decided to proceed further. If they decided to also disembark, we would have had to show hospitality to them too.

"Relief in the way of drinking water was immediately distributed in 4-litre bottles to all who had gathered in the Baptist Church close by, to those in other buildings above the flood water and even to people on the roadside. Food parcels then arrived in sahana seva lorries from various organizations, even individuals. We did not need them but our lunches and dinners were dhal, potato, sprats fried and onion sambol. We no longer had to cook meals for others. No green vegetables have been seen anywhere in our area; the shop shelves are bare of even dry goods like biscuits, sugar and tea.

"My uncle owned a large acreage of land close by, much below our house and garden. He sold it to a person who resold it in lots and 64 houses were built, 99% Muslim families. These people were in grave danger but only for a short while. Vehicles from Hameedias were soon at hand and all including many pregnant mothers and babes in arms were taken to safety.

"Up until this last Wednesday 25, we used to go to bed very late at night. Our minds though greatly troubled at the beginning of the flood, soon relaxed, but comfortable sleep was impossible. There was always noise around, people moving on the road in front and crowding around when food arrived. My nephew would go out to the road to collect and garbage-bag the left over wrapping and rigifoam boxes. Though kindness and concern to humans and even animals was evident, careless throwing of rubbish continued with greater enthusiasm!

"We did not see a single snake but my cousin had a large one trying to enter her house. No shouting, brandishing of brooms nor prodding to get it out would deter it until a boat came along. What we suffered was the smell, the floating garbage of all sorts and the sight of the colour of the flood water. When people who stepped in came out of the water their clothes were stained blackish. We wondered whether oil was mixed in it. Armed forces personnel and the police spent hours and hours in the water – 24 hour help given by them.

"Our church, the Baptist Church, not even a mile away from my home rose to meet the tragedy immediately like so many places of worship. The downstairs was occupied by non-parishioners because they were the first to come in. Then the usual congregation whose homes had been inundated came for shelter and were given rooms in the upper storeys of the Sunday School and other buildings. I’ve been spending the days since Thursday last attending to the refugees: helping in food distribution or seeing to what they needed to prepare their own meals. There were urgent necessities like Panadol, sanitary napkins, pampers which were brought in from Colombo by those who saved their cars, many parked in the church grounds. I was scared my household would run out of gas. An uncle living in Mt Lavinia phoned to ask what we wanted. I repeated the words ‘gas cylinder’ thrice! He brought us two. We had been cooking and distributing food and making cups of tea and coffee by the hundred not deterred that the gas may run out."

Asked for comments she said the people of Kotikawatte and even they suffered extra much by the garbage piled mountain-like in Kotikawatte and to a smaller extent at Wellampitiya. The water swirled disgustingly with garbage of all kinds and the smell was obnoxious. This is one reason why the waters in these areas did not subside as they should have but is still stagnant. A friend at lunch could not understand why Colombo city garbage was not disposed of in a much better way and not, as of now, being such a hazard to the health of people where it is dumped.

The flood victim friend also noted that people in stricken areas on the outskirts of Colombo are angered that bunds built to protect Colombo from rising Kelani Ganga waters is what causes them harsher difficulties.

We invited this friend for lunch to allow her to give voice to travails suffered and thus experience a beneficial cathartic effect. She did not need it. Older now and wiser, she is also very sensible. Nature or God works in mysterious ways, she accepts. More significantly, from the moment she saw a person shivering in the rain outside her home and later struggling in floodwaters, she and her nephew and his family stretched out helping, giving hands. Maybe it was a steaming cup of tea, but with it went sympathy and demonstration of humanity and the sharing of misfortunes with no demarcations drawn.

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