CHENNAI: It was a chilly December evening, but one couldn’t tell what time of the day it was — the clouds had blackened the sky for hours. The unrelenting rain came down in torrents, adding to the 10 feet of water in low-lying Pallikaranai. People moved from the ground floors of their apartments to the first floor and in some cases, to the rooftops. They had no access to food, drinking water, electricity or even phone connectivity.
This was the situation when Chennai Trekking Club’s Peter Van Geit and a group of trekkers waded through flood-hit areas and rescued about 130 people over two days. “I was stranded in Poonamallee on the first day of the flood. I could reach home only the next day, but at that time the gravity of the situation did not hit me. It was only when my friend called me and we went to Pallikaranai that we realised how bad it was,” recalls the outdoor enthusiast, who will be giving a TedX talk on the Chennai floods at SRM College, Ramapuram, on March 17.
“We put together a few things in a car and headed there. As we went in, the water was first knee level, then waist level, then we were swimming through the submerged streets. We used tyre tubes from lorries and pieces of wood and came up with make-shift flotation platforms to rescue people,” he recalls.
Going back to the same area about a week or two later was a “bit confusing”, because just a while back, the same place had been underwater and “we had been swimming there”.
After the rescue efforts, the group shifted focus to the second phase — distributing relief kits. “The problem was that all the relief material from people landed in the same places while in lesser known areas, no relief had reached even after 5-6 days,” avers Peter. The group then set up a relief map, which pinpointed locations that still needed relief.
The third phase was the cleanup. At Kotturpuram housing board and slums, the situation was the worst, with garbage and sewer getting mixed with water from the Adyar River, which broke its banks. About 30 cleanups involving thousands of people were organised post the floods.
The fourth and ongoing phase of their efforts has been restoration of livelihoods in places like Cuddalore and Pulicat. “People lost their fishing nets, their pottery wheels...we are trying to channelise relief money to restore livelihoods,” says Peter.
The encroachment on water bodies, he says, was the primary reason behind the floods. “Chennai is built on a flood plain. Lakes are an important natural buffer. Sustainable planning is required,” he points out.
Another important factor is slashing the garbage footprint. The city, which generates about 6,000 tonnes of garbage every day, could cut its footprint by as much as 90% by effectively segregating waste right from the household level. “Kitchen waste can be composted and dry waste can be recycled,” observes Peter. “When disaster strikes again — which is likely because we’ve built in all these low-lying areas, there should be better coordination and information flow. There needs to be an overall body for this.”
Vulnerable areas and suburbs, which one may not have even heard of, need to be mapped thoroughly to avoid flooding, he adds. With his number on Facebook and his phone ringing every few seconds, Peter says there was a constant stream of people from outside the city panicking and wanting to know if their relatives were safe during the floods. “There has to be clear information — for instance, Velachery is safe, Guindy needs help, and what kind of help — food, water or medical?”
Recalling a particularly emotional moment while rescuing a woman, Peter says, “She was holding a day-old infant in her arms — the kid was born during the floods.” Yes, there are times when the clouds have a silver lining.
Talk on the Deluge
Peter Van Geit will be giving a TedX talk on Chennai floods at SRM College, Ramapuram, on March 17. He will be sharing his experience and the preventive steps to be taken