Natural disasters come without warning. They kill and wipe out entire families. Reporting on natural disasters is particularly challenging because the situation demands a balance of risk-taking and safety. To tell the story, one has to jump right into the story.
The floods in Maharashtra have ravaged several districts. I have reported from Chiplun in Ratnagiri district and places around Sangli, which are among the worst-hit. Three days into the assignment, I still hadn't been able to get into Sangli town. On the fourth day, three detours and and a three hour drive later, I finally made it to Sangli city, part of which are still inundated.
The stories of pain, suffering and loss are the most difficult to tell. Journalists have done that a lot during the pandemic. A natural disaster in the time of a pandemic makes it that much more difficult to report. Covid becomes an added worry. Especially when you have to report on Covid patients being rescued on a boat. You have no choice but to adapt and do the best you can to keep safe.
We were offered an opportunity to report on a mission to rescue patients by an NGO from Kolhapur, known as the White Army, which works in disaster situations. When we got onto the boat we realised this was a great way of reporting on how a hospital treating Covid patients had managed to keep their oxygen supplies going in spite of a power blackout due to the flood. It was gratifying to see old patients thanking the almighty after being rescued from the submerged hospital.
A woman said, "I am old. I survived Covid and a flood. Maybe god wants me here longer..." She said this to complete strangers who had come to rescue her. But once she was out of the hospital safe, we all felt relieved. While telling a story, we had experienced an incredible moment of grit and survival.
Getting to Chiplun was not easy either. The main Mumbai-Goa highway that is the normal route to Chiplun had been shut after flood waters in rivers reached dangerous levels. That meant navigating a circuitous route in the dark. We stopped to rest only when we reached a place where we knew the mountainous terrain begins and it would be a big risk to continue. We decided to wait for three hours until the first morning light appeared on the horizon. After an arduous journey, we finally got to Chiplun. Even then we were not where the story was. It was only when we met the NDRF and the White Army team that we realised the extent of the damage. The entire town had been engulfed by flood waters.
Our interviews with locals in Chiplun the next morning gave us some idea of what they were going through.
People are resilient and people in the Konkan were already in rebuild mode. The next morning, we saw people already going about their business. Shopkeepers were cleaning up and emptying their stock as everything had been damaged by the slush carried by the flood waters. None of them gave us the slightest hint that they were deeply worried, even though they were, about the time they would take to recover.
By the time Chiplun was returning to normal, the floods had struck at Sangli on the other side of the Western Ghats. From Konkan to western Maharashtra, the same story, repeating itself. The waters were receding in one place but another place had begun to flood. We decided to hit the road again and drive to Sangli immediately.
On the way, a counterpart in another channel warned me that all roads to Sangli had been inundated. The reporter suggested I try driving via Kolhapur and that's exactly what I did. As we approached Sangli, tell-tale signs of distress were everywhere.
On the highway we saw scores of trucks parked on one flank. We immediately realized that a second major national highway passing through Maharashtra was now shut. That made two national highways that had shut due to excessive rain. As we reached the place where the waters had inundated the road, we met our old friends from the White Army again. This time they were rescuing people from places near the highway. And they kindly acceded to our request to accommodate us once again as they were going to drop off some staff from the electricity department.
Sangli still remains cut off. People are marooned. While reporting we noticed several stray dogs that had taken refuge in empty homes.
The worst part of being a reporter is to see souls in distress and not being able to help. The best part is when you are able to help.
(Saurabh Gupta is Bureau Chief - Mumbai at NDTV)
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