8/6/2010 | India , Ladakh

The Flood: Leh 8/6/2010

I remember thinking these houses are not made for this kind of rain.  The flat roofed traditional mud brick construction of many of the houses in arid Ladakh provides excellent insulation against the extremes of hot and cold but is less effective against the force of water.   The rain pounded ferociously against the roof in the darkness of the night, I had never experienced rain this intense, and then it intensified.  I looked out of the window but was only able to see a few feet at most, my headlamp unable to penetrate the sheets of water falling from the sky.  Water began to leak through the roof.  I opened an umbrella turning it upside down to catch the water and quickly packed my electronics in my water proof bag.   Water began pouring in from another point in the ceiling and I briefly dashed outside to grab a bucket returning drenched to the room after a few seconds of exposure to the onslaught of water from above. Despite my room being located on the upward end of the gently sloped patio around which the rooms were arranged, water was still falling so fast that it was beginning to flow “uphill” trickling into my room from beneath the door.  About 30 minutes past while I lay in my bed listening to the unrelenting beating of the rain in the blackness of the night, I periodically broke the darkness, scanning the ceiling with my headlamp to check for new leaks.  The rain returned to a more mundane drizzle and I drifted back to sleep unaware of the terror that must have been unfolding only a 20 minute walk away.

My first hint that something was very wrong in Leh was the weathered and dazed look that Angchu (the male half of the couple who ran the Tsavo Guesthouse) wore on his typical jovial face.  “Too much water, too much water,” he said “many people die, very bad, too much water.”  It was 9:00 am before I ventured out into the streets.  Typically Changspa road would have been bustling with activity, restaurants serving croissants, muesli, and coffee to foreign patrons, souvenir shops opening their door in hopes of snagging that first sale of the day, and travel agents updating there signs with the latest scheduled trek and tour departures.  Today was different; nothing was open, though I did not yet encounter any visible signs of damage, a dog lie dead in the road, caked in mud having succumb to the ferocity of last nights storm.  I encountered a Ladakhi friend of mine on the street and tried to garner more information about what had happened last night.  He told me that a flood had swept through the area around the bus station.  I walked up a hill which I knew would overlook the area in order to survey the site not knowing yet if it would even be possible to access the area from the ground.  In the Muslim cemetery below the hill I could see men digging graves, an ominous sign.  Although I could see the trail of destruction from the hill it was not until I walked down into the area that I perceived the violence of the previous night flash flood, and the destruction it had unleashed.  Buildings I had seen the day before were gone, vanished completely the mud once contained in their walls strewn across the main road into Leh, and carried in the waters of the Indus to Pakistan and the Arabian Sea.  Buses and vehicles had been tossed from there parking places and hurled in to buildings and other debris with such force that twisted metal wreckage hardly resembled the mode of transportation it had once been.  Anyone caught in this was dead I thought to myself.

With today’s instant media coverage, 24 hour news networks, that beam images of disasters around the world into our comfortable living rooms we almost become desensitized to such images when we see them on the screen.  But being there was different, standing in a place that yesterday had been a home, and today was rubble, watching a lifeless body being pulled from the remains and knowing many more lay yet undiscovered, such images in three dimensions, do not pass with the flick of a remote or a well crafted segue to the weather report.  Everyone wore the same glazed look of disbelief and shock, their eyes seeing but not quite comprehending or perhaps not wanting to believe what had happened.  I look also worn by the exhausted mud caked cows, donkeys, and dogs that had managed to survive the waters wrath.

There seemed to be little in the way of any official response.  I wondered where the army was, there are several bases within and around Leh but I didn’t see one military member in any sort of active role that morning.  Volunteers had organized themselves in to lines digging and passing ruble from one area to another but there didn’t appear to be any particular coordinated strategy to the digging, more of just a cathartic response to do something anything even if it was just to move dirt from one side of the road to the other.

I returned to the guesthouse to help Zangmo and Angchu clean up from the storm.  My room actually faired best in the rain being in the highest position on the slowly slanting flat roof.  There was no power, to no surprise, and nor would there be for more than a week.  The well on the grounds of the guesthouse was flooded with mud and the pump that was used to fill the water tank didn’t work without power, so we gathered water from the spring a 10 minute walk away for bathing and drinking water.  As night approached panic began to set in again as rain drizzled down from the darkened sky.  Near our guesthouse locals and tourists alike were moving rocks and sandbags to create a dike across upper Changspa near the river that had been the site of flooding in the past but was spared the worst of flooding the previous night.   As the night darkened Angchu began to panic, whipped up by his understandingly shaken fellow Ladakhi neighbors who were evacuating to the higher ground around Shanti Stupa at the western edge of town.  For some reason he designated me as the decision maker for our guesthouse, asking me on several occasions with searching eyes, “Should we go to Shanti Stupa?  All the people are going to Shanti Stupa?”  I had gone down to look at the level of the river, though high, I judged it would have to raise another 20 feet and wipe out two rows of structures between us and the river before it would even reach the bottom of our guesthouse.  Furthermore there was a large concrete hotel nearby that could act as a refuge should the water reach our structure.   Even in the flood of last night, I had noted that several concrete structures had weathered the waters though there lower floors were gutted.  I told Angchu that we should wait telling him I didn’t think we were in imminent danger the rain was not nearly has hard has it had been the previous night and we that should keep watch on the height of the river for now, not wanting to spend a night outside in the rain.  Fortunately that night would pass without incident.

More than 400 people lost there lives in the flash floods on August 6, 2010, including a few tourists who were out trekking in the Markha Valley, a trek I had done on two prior occasions.  Electricity would be out for more than a week, and the roads to Manali and Srinagar would be closed for several weeks.  In the days following the flood the airport would be flooded with tourists trying to get out, air fares soared before the government finally stepped in to mediate the prices.  By mid-August typically one of the busiest times of the year for tourism in Ladakh, Leh was a virtual ghost town.

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