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Landslide toll rises, church washed away in southern India

Church people are giving immediate help to thousands of people fleeing flooded areas in Kerala

Landslide toll rises, church washed away in southern India

The remains of St. Paul's Church after it collapsed in Alappuzha district of Kerala state following week-long heavy rain and winds. (Photo supplied)

Floodwater washed away a 151-year-old church in southern India's Kerala state, where the death toll in a massive landslide spiraled to 52 as torrential rain and flooding continued.

The church building of the Protestant Church of South India (CSI) in Alappuzha collapsed on Aug. 11 as several areas of the low-lying district were inundated for the fifth day.

Rescue workers recovered more bodies in Pottamudy village in Idukki district, where parts of a hill caved in on Aug. 6, burying about 70 people alive.

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Officials said 52 bodies had been recovered as of Aug. 11 and search operations were continuing for 19 missing people.

Prem Krishnan, a senior government official coordinating search operations, said the search will continue until the last missing person is traced.

Church people in the flooded areas, particularly the worst-affected central Kerala area that includes Alappuzha district, are coordinating relief efforts.

"Thousands of hectares of paddy fields are submerged and hundreds of people living there have moved to their close families and relatives," said Father Alex P. Oommen, parish priest of the collapsed St. Paul's Church that stood amid paddy fields.

He said people are avoiding government relief camps for fear of contracting the coronavirus infection.

He said the church collapsed after an embankment between two paddy fields collapsed after floodwater surged into the area. "We could not get to the collapsed church as the entire area is flooded," he said.

British missionary W.J. Richardson of the Church Missionary Society built the church in 1869 for Christian farmers, mostly paddy cultivators in an area known as the "rice bowl of Kerala."

"Even the church's foundation was washed away in the gush of water," said Father Oommen, adding that they could see choir books, benches, chairs and musical instruments floating in floodwater.

Catholic Archbishop Joseph Perumthottam of Changanaserry, whose archdiocese covers most parts of Alappuzha district, said Catholic volunteers led by priests and nuns were helping people.

The archbishop, along with his auxiliary bishop Thomas Tharayil and senior priests, surveyed many flood-affected areas.

The diocese has also opened a help desk to coordinate rehabilitation and opened its institutions to accommodate flood victims.

"We have also rushed food, drinking water and other immediate requirements to the affected people," Father Jacob Mavunkal, an official of Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council, told UCA News on Aug. 12.

"Many other parts of the state also suffered losses because of floods and winds. Landslides, soil erosion and falling trees have damaged homes and crops."

More than 400 people have taken shelter in church centers. Many people are still in their partially flooded houses and are not willing to move to relief camps because of the Covid-19 situation, he said.

Most parts of the state experienced a let-up in the torrential rain on Aug. 12, including landslide-hit Idukki district.

Bishop John Nellikunnel of Idukki and some senior priests visited the landslide site and spoke with survivors and their families on Aug. 10. The bishop also visited the mass grave of the victims and offered requiem prayers.

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