The Flash Floods of Leh (part 2)

Day 2 : Mob mentality and panicked pandemonium.

India never plays by the rules, and states of Emergency seem to be  no exception.

My Swiss friend Jocelyn and I had spent a night under stormy skies on the mountain, where we had luckily met our good friend Rami. He was an Israeli army medic who spent the previous day volunteering his skills in the hospital, and the picture he painted of his experience was grim, yet inspiring.
There are two hospitals in Leh: A government hospital with new beds, but no other equipment or medicine, and an old hospital in the city center which was unfortunately half swept away in the path of the torrential waters.  While volunteering there, our friend found no medical supplies or doctors, but had seen the bodies piled up in a store-room.  They were “not your average drowned corpses.”  The bodies had contorted extensively as they tumbled down the mountain along with boulders, trees, cars and houses.  What was most amazing to him was the strength of the survivors, some having lost their entire families.  They took extremely painful surgeries and amputations without any drugs or medicines, but with stoic dignity. Even those that had lost everything or were in pain and suffering themselves were the first to lend a hand to a neighbor in need.   Moved by his stories,  I was hoping that I could put some of my Emergency First Aid training to use at the hospital so Jocelyn and I  headed down into town, determined to lend a hand.  This might be Ladakh,however it is still India, and things never pan out the way that you plan.

What we found at the local hospital were hundreds of local  men, gathered outside the gates.  There was a car parked in the middle of the crowd, packed with megaphones droning on.  We assumed that this was a gathering of people still hoping for news of the estimated 900 friends and relatives that had gone missing in the storm.  As we took in the scene, the atmosphere had suddenly changed, the loudspeaker picked up in volume and urgency and the crowd started to move… slowly at first, and then, like an avalanche,  picked up full speed into a flat-out sprint.  I pulled us into the lee of a ruined car as the mob rushed by, scrambling into trucks and trampling over each other.  Perhaps they had been told of some survivors or bodies that had been found?  I thought that we didn’t have to run, until we heard the cries “WATER!!!! RUN!!!!!”

And so we ran, full speed with the panicked mob, full of the realistic fears that another flood was on it’s way.  Staying true to the illogical mob mentality, the throngs scurried down into the valley, along the exact path of  the previous flood destruction.  Jocelyn and I managed to escape the pack, and when we spotted people clamoring over a high fence protecting a 4 story building, we followed suit.  Indians will fight tooth and nail just to hang by a thumb from a moving bus, so you can imagine there was no chivalry when climbing this gate to survive a deadly deluge.  As we launched over the spiked  gate, we were clawed, pushed, and dragged by frenzied hands.  We made it to the top of the building to discover that it was actually  the second residence of the Dalai Lama.  We had broken into the home of His Holiness!

It turned out that our marathon escape had been a false alarm, and so we continued in our search for ways to help.  We soon found a sign asking for volunteers to help the flood victims.  Perfect!  We went to sign up.   “We are ready to volunteer.  How can we help?”  The response at the volunteer booth was  “we don’t know, we were hoping you would be able to tell us!”  So many people wanted to help, yet no one knew how.  The worst hit areas were still too dangerous.   I could volunteer my avalanche rescue experience, but how does one probe for bodies when you are sinking into the ground you are standing on?  How many times would you dig up carpets, boulders and tree trunks before you found a body?  (However, I liked the image of me leading a search and  shouting orders at the incompetent Indian army!)

Our efforts to aid were fruitless, and so our attention fell to the action on the other side of town.      Competing for attention in what had become an overnight world of chaos was the buzz of tourist activity.  A few internet shops had opened, with lines a mile long, and as I lined-up to contact home and my embassy, I watched with fascination the variety of reactions from Leh’s visitors.  There were  frenzied white-haired tour groups with equally panicked tour guides, stranded lost-looking backpackers, and tourists covered in mud from moving boulders and debris.   In the Israeli-dominated Changspa area many  continued on in holiday mode, smoking chilums and sun-bathing.

But most amazing to me was that most people didn’t understand the extent of the devastation.   Time and time again I heard befuddled tourists who couldn’t understand why they couldn’t do the following:

go trekking (The storms had created raging rivers throughout the mountain ranges and many tourists were caught trekking in the storm.   The lucky ones were  evacuated , but some went missing, and about 20 died)

go shopping (all shops had closed as locals went to look for loved ones or help in the rescue effort.  Those that had opened drew  rioting protesters who threw stones through the windows)

take a shower ( all water was being diverted to emergency use)

get money (the two ATMs in town had been maxed out, and no more cash was available.)

order from the menu (the Ladakhi diet is basic in the first place, but with all the farmland destroyed, many will starve this winter.  Pizza just wasn’t  a priority)

get a flight (there are only 2 flights a day leaving from Leh, and not a single seat was available for weeks, not to mention the price had increased 5 times!)

take the next bus out of  town ( it took Jocelyn and I 1 week to take an overnight bus from Manali to Leh last month when the roads were ‘good.’  The road to Srinegar was already problematic because of fighting in Kashmir…. but now the roads and bridges were not only impassable, but had disappeared!  There were no more roads!  I even heard that a group of Israelis wanted to stage a protest because they couldn’t ride their motorbikes out of town!)

The rumor mill churned.  Signs went up for the missing.  Tourists began to organize volunteer organizations.  I donated shoes, clothes, food, and all the money I could spare.  A new rumor came along that the area of our hotel was not safe and that more rains were to come,  so we booked another room on the side of town, expensive, but safe.   Our hopes of helping had not been fulfilled, but we were alive, and we would find plenty of opportunity to get our hands dirty in the days to come.

(Again, If  care to help, please see the note on my facebook profile or leave me a note to contact the NGO I am working with. Any help at all would be greatly appreciated!)

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