CHENNAI: The wind speed has picked up and it’s cool. The sky is hazy. No one opts for air conditioners any more. Is it winter already? Wait. There has been no rain - yet.
The Northeast monsoon is as usual playing truant with Chennai, a year after it caused mega floods in the metropolis. Is it going to be a potential drought year is the top-of-the-mind question.
Ahead of the first anniversary of the monumental flooding on December 1, The New Indian Express takes a wide angle view of how people and authorities are coping with the deluge a year on, and what plans they may have to tackle the rains this time.
"That dawn that I can never forget"
It was about 2.30 am, December 1, 2015. Sampath Sundarrajan woke up and looked out of the window of his ground floor house at VGP Selva Nagar Extension, Velachery, to check the water level as incessant rains pounded the city. He found the level somewhat within safe limits, half-submerging the tyres of his car in the parking lot, and went back to sleep assuming all would be okay. Around 5.30 am, the rain stopped. He got up again to check the level and finds it has entered the staircase of the apartment. By 6.30 am, the level has risen and about 2 ft of water was sloshing around in his house. He woke his family up. There was no power. Supply had been cut to prevent electrocutions. Immediately, he moved domestic items and gadgets on the floor to shelves to prevent further damage.
He and his wife moved the two children and his aged parents up to the second floor apartment of his neighbour. Their stay there would continue for two days. Subsequently, with the water level showing no sign of receding, he waded through neck-deep water and haggled with a boat operator to take his family to safety about 800 metres away on the main road. The family immediately left the city to avoid further problems.
The Great Deluge of Chennai 2015 damaged most of the furniture in his house and caused several lakh rupees worth property damage. His damaged car alone was worth at least Rs 5 lakh, he says, while furniture and other appliances such as the fridge, grinder and washing machine cost about Rs 1 lakh.
A year on, Sampath has now shifted his residence to a first-floor apartment in the same locality, wary of Mother Nature unleashing her wrath again. He had to shell out a considerable amount as advance deposit for the rented house, he says. “Though structurally I didn’t make any alteration to my house after the floods, special cleaning had to be done as sewage-mixed floodwater stagnated in the rooms for long. It gave off a foul smell and it went away only after 15 days of cleaning and sprucing up,” says Sampath.
“I’ve moved, but things haven’t changed. Only if the major drainage system being built near the Vijayanagar bus terminus and the incomplete one at Taramani as well as other storm water management systems are operational will we know if we can tackle such a deluge again,” says Sampath.
He says it is not certain yet if the newly built drainage systems across the city can withstand such an assault again. And he has doubts the quality of construction as well. “Water from the Dandeeswaram side and Perungudi should not be let out into this locality. That caused the flooding last year. Till Muttukkadu, the drains and streams that help clear water should be desilted. Mainly, the famous Pallikkaranai marshland, due to garbage dumping, encroachment and road works, has been reduced to only a few acres presently. It has the capacity to hold a large quantity of water. Because it has been turned into a dump, the flooding worsened last year. If the authorities want to avoid a recurrence, they must take steps to restore it,” adds Sampath.
"Touch wood, we’re much better prepared now"
Deputy Director, Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Service
“Don’t even remind me,” says Meenakshi Vijayakumar, deputy director of Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Service for the northwestern region, about last year’s calamity. The officer was in the vanguard of the massive rescue efforts launched during the flood last year in areas like Kilpauk and Secretariat Colony in the city. When she reached the area on a boat along with her rescue team, they were on four feet of water, she says. Her team immediately got going. The first thing they did was to register the names of the residents in a camp set up for the purpose and distribute food to people who were starving as they could not access shops to buy provisions.
“Several NGOs and residents’ welfare associations had already started relief work and had been distributing food,” she says, recounting the initial moments of her rescue efforts.
She and her team then moved through snake-infested waters for a major relief effort at Global Hospital, she says, and adds that at the medical facility, they quickly moved patients to safer spots in the vicinity.
“Nobody can predict if it will pour again like that, but we are much better prepared to handle such eventualities than last year when the fire service, NGOs and volunteers played a big role in evacuating residents,” she says.
“We have done vulnerability mapping of areas prone to flooding, created awareness among those living in low-lying areas, created an inventory, reviewed all essential mitigation plans and replaced the equipment damaged during the flood.”
Wiser after last year’s experience, the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Service has procured equipment like inflatable rubber boats, snake-snares, buoys and life jackets, while readying 1,328 government schools to house people during future flooding.
“We are trying to heighten awareness by sharing important phone numbers to call during an emergency and teaching people how to make improvised rafts with locally available wood. However, the public should form associations in flood-prone areas and take steps for immediate relief before the authorities step in,” she says.
“Every family should have a kit of items for such eventualities, such as cell phones that have a radio facility, important documents such as family cards and contact numbers as well as helpline numbers,” the deputy director says.
“We have also provided special training to our rescue team members on how to save people stranded in inundated areas,” she says.
"I lost a lot last year; but i haven't taken any specific steps to tackle flooding this year"
Fouz, 45, Retail shop owner
“I don’t want a repeat of that experience ever again,” says Fouz, a grocer in Velachery. When the deluge hit the city in 2015, more than two feet of water entered his shop at Balamurugan Nagar and damaged most of the stock and left him staring at big losses. The floodwaters also entered his apartment and flat, disrupting daily life for at least a week. Subsequently when his flat became completely flooded, he and his family moved to the first floor house of a neighbour in the same apartment, says Fouz.
“It took me more than a month after the floodwaters receded to open the store again,” says Fouz, whose outlet and home are housed in the same apartment complex.
“I have not taken any specific steps this year to tackle such flooding should it happen again. Last year, water from a lake and from the upland area nearby entered my locality after continuous downpour for several days,” he adds.
“I suffered about Rs 50,000 worth losses due to the flooding,” he says.
Kasthuri (name changed)
56, Flower seller
“I lost my mother after the flooding,” says an emotional Kasthuri (name changed), recounting the harrowing experience she and her family had to go through during the floods last year. She insists that she should not be named and even her locality not mentioned in any media report, due to sentimental reasons. The once-prosperous family has fallen on bad times and has now been reduced to pavement dwellers withering in poverty, she says.
“During the immediate aftermath of the flood, several people promised to help me, but those were just empty words. No big help was forthcoming,” she says.
Kasthuri and her younger sister, along with three other women members of the family, now are homeless, ‘living’ in a park, while she sells flowers on a sidewalk close by to support her family. When the floods hit the locality last December, Kasthuri, who is wheelchair-bound following paralysis of her legs, and her sister moved from the pavement to a car park in a neighbouring house. But even that mercy was not shown for long, she says. They were asked to move out of the car park even before the waters receded.
“My husband is no more, and I get only Rs 1,000 as widow pension. There is no big flower sale everyday and consequently I can’t feed my family. The pension I get is spent on my medicines,” she says, her eyes misting over. She has a daughter to take care of too.
“During the deluge, she had to be carried physically to safety in chin-deep water. Some people helped us; they were a godsend,” her sister says. “The rescue personnel later posted in the area offered us biscuits and drinking water. We had to survive on it for a few days. The water drained and the situation normalised only after more than 10 days. My elder sister’s limbs turned numb after being out in the cold water for more than a week.
“Meanwhile, our mother fell ill, after which we admitted her to a famous private hospital. But, due to improper treatment, she passed away after suffering a lot,” says Kasthuri’s sister.
Her current situation and the meagre daily income she earns weighs on her mind as Kasthuri says, “I don’t think anything has changed. Roads are still not good enough. We can’t handle such a tough situation again. I need monetary support. The Corporation provided me with this wheelchair. Otherwise my situation would have been much worse,” she says.
“Our resources are already stretched. If it gets flooded again like last year, we have no place to go.”
"Swimming in snake-infested, sewage-mixed water to rescue people"
Peter Van Geit
44, Project manager at CISCO and founder of The Chennai Trekking Club
An avid trekker, adventure enthusiast and social activist, Peter van Geit shares his experience of volunteering for flood relief work during last year’s floods. A Belgian by nationality, he has been living in Chennai for the past 18 years.
“The first two days, we were engaged in rescue efforts near Pallikkaranai marshland rescuing people from rooftops in flooded neighbourhoods on a makeshift raft. We moved about 130 people with a team of five friends from Chennai Trekking Club (CTC).”
After the rescue began relief work. “The next few days we worked with the Blue Cross of India in providing relief (food, water) to residents of Kotturpuram slum and rescuing stranded animals from rooftops,” he says.
“At the same time, CTC set up a relief centre near Tambaram where relief materials were received, segregated and distributed to over 2,000 families in Chennai, Cuddalore and Pulicat. After immediate relief was over, we started cleaning up the streets, slums, rivers, lakes and beaches of Chennai which were covered in garbage. So far, we have done some 75-odd cleanup drives, removing more than 50 tonnes of garbage,” he says.
On rehabilitation efforts, he says, “We simultaneously started with long-term rehabilitation of flood-hit schools and orphanages in Chennai and villages in Cuddalore and Pulicat repairing damaged homes, helping people put back their lost livelihood and reconstructing damaged buildings.”
To a question on how dangerous the relief work was in the swirling waters and whether they faced any hindrance, he says, “While rescuing stranded citizens from flooded neighbourhoods, we had to swim in sewage and garbage-mixed water infested with snakes. The water was so high, we ended up stumbling over compound walls covered with sharp glass-bits. We did face challenges with relief materials getting stopped near the city outskirts as well as being plundered on the way to delivery in Cuddalore. However, much of the work went on without hassle.”
But did the relief materials reach the intended recipients? “The problem was the lack of overall coordination of the flow of relief materials which meant that some areas got flooded with relief and other areas didn’t receive anything,” he says.
When asked if he would undertake such volunteer work if such a situation were to arise again this year or later, Peter Van Geit says, “I think any volunteer during last year’s floods will intuitively do the same again this year. It’s humanity that makes us help our fellow citizens in distress. It was a great display of camaraderie and volunteer-ship and brought out the best in the citizens of Chennai.”
Though he reiterates it was an interesting experience, it was not really life changing, he says. “In Chennai Trekking Club, we are exposed throughout the year to adventurous, outdoor activities which push our physical and mental limits. Surviving in jungles for weeks, swimming in open waters and mid-seas, volunteering and team-work, endurance sports activities... all these harden us and help make us ready to face challenges in life.” On the situation now, he says, “One year post the floods, I’m not too sure whether much been done to prepare us better for another calamity.”
On the CTC team and their plans now he says, “Hundreds of volunteers from CTC were actively involved in rescue, relief, cleanup and rehabilitation work after the floods. They will surely be ready to jump in again. We have been active in rehabilitation and cleanups even one year post the floods, so volunteering actually never stopped for us.”