CHENNAI: After cyclone Michaung wreaked havoc, many lost lives, homes, and hope, amid a blackout. Volunteers rolled up their sleeves and waded through murky waters to assist those who were stranded, marooned, hungry, thirsty, and awaiting rescue. Five of these good Samaritans talk about their challenges of relief aid.
In north Chennai, as areas turned into islands, homes inundated and people stranded, Dr Ambedkar Pagutharivu Padasalai — a tuition centre in JJR Nagar, Vyasarpadi run by Vyasai Thozhargal— turned into a refuge for many. For over one week, this centre looked after 40-odd residents, as stagnant water filled the area. In times of struggle, Vyasai Thozhargal managed to convert this area into a makeshift kitchen, doling out lemon rice, oorga and kanji, and pulisadam. “We cooked 150-200 kilo of rice for one day.
These packages were distributed to MGR Nagar, Dhamodharan Nagar, and Ezhil Nagar among others,” says Sarathkumar of Vyasai Thozhargal, adding that around 1,500 people received food packers in a day. This active youth group, which aids underprivileged children from marginalised communities, has been engaged in helping their area. Following the red alert, Vyasai Thozargal was prepared. From distributing milk packets to organising a health camp, and recovering bodies, the group has spent days involved in relief work. From their own pockets, the residents pitched in and managed to raise over `30,000. “While we didn’t expect this much of (wreckage), we anticipated and feared that livelihoods would be affected. We reserved around 100 bedsheets and distributed them house-to-house, telling them to come to our tuition centre,” he says. Every year, north Chennai reels during monsoon with heavy rains and dam inflow. Help often comes to south Chennai and north Chennai is neglected, he says.
In 2015, volunteers of Surf Turf, a Kovalam-based surf school, braved the floods to rescue people from their inundated homes. Fast-forward to 2023, the 14-member team waded through storm-hit lanes of Sholinganallur, Perumbakkam, Velachery, and Pallikarani. Equipped with two SUPs, three kayaks, and two boats, the team rescued 20-odd relieved passengers including senior citizens, children, and pregnant women. “After the wind began with heavy rain, we started receiving calls. Some people didn’t even have drinking water, so we took 14 cases of one-litre bottles and distributed them. There were no proper guidelines, details on how many people were stuck, and which areas are danger zones,” says Surf Turf volunteer Dharani Selvakumar. From sketchy signals to difficulty in transporting the boats — the challenges were many but this time, the rain lasted just two days. In 2015, he recalls a near-death experience during a rescue operation. “At Urapakkam, I almost lost my life. While walking on the corner of the road, I got stuck in an open sewage but I managed to swim and escape.” This time, the memories of rescuing a three-day-old baby and a mother from the sludgy Cooum-mixed waters at Velachery will remain in his mind. “But it is good that the water receded fast. We did not think it would. While people were struggling for food, we saw a lot of volunteers, government officials, citizens, and NDRF personnel come out to help.” he says.
Known for tapping on hitherto untold stories of Chennaiites, Mohamed Ashik, a social media influencer, has always rendered support to the needy. Even before the cyclone showers began, Ashik began his relief work. “We provided umbrellas and raincoats to street dwellers, and tharpai to make huts in some rural areas around Chennai and its borders,” he says. During the power outage, food and water soon grew inadequate. Ashik and a few others helped people from multiple areas. “We first provided food in and around Velachery, Thoraipakkam, and Semmencheri along with some essentials for kids and women. We reached out with relief materials via boats, JCB, and trucks with the help of the Chennai police and NDRF. Over the last weekend, we provided provisions for some villages for the next 30 days and tharpai to cover the broken roofs,” he shares. Besides this, he ensured frontline workers like policemen and corporation workers were provided food, water, and tea regularly. Ashik believes that responsible citizens can help improve Chennai and support the government while they take steps to ensure better infrastructure and city planning. An advocate of being kind, Ashik is grateful to all those who came forward to help provide relief following the disaster. He is working on establishing a foundation called Be Kind for people to participate responsibly in social work. “This foundation aims at providing for the needy, supporting education for children, uplifting and stabilising the lives of people with disabilities, street dwellers and shop keepers, and in rescue and disaster support.”
Hope For Critters
Taking note of the cyclone warnings, this animal protection organisation sent out messages informing citizens that they would be on standby in case of emergency. “We started getting calls from December 4. Usually, we take our ambulance for rescue. It conked off the very first day because of the water levels,” says Kirthana Raamsukaesh, founder of the organisation, who hired a jeep and a boat for the relief work. They rescued and aided pets and pet parents in areas like Adyar, RA Puram, Kelambakkam, Thaiyur, and Tambaram. They relocated the pets to a known and safer place. Attending 50 calls in two days, the foundation responded to 85% of them. “The greatest fear is either the pet getting lost or displaced from their home or territory, there will be fear of a new place,” she adds. Going forward, they are in the process of procuring a boat, to battle any possible crises.
After the cyclone, a yellow and blue coloured mini-lorry, which usually carries party orders, was en route to Villivakkam and Velachery, to provide food to those in need. This was courtesy of Brothers Biryani, a restaurant in Anna Nagar with its kitchen in Villivakkam. A few staff of the eatery and friends of the employees, who reside in the area had called for help amid food shortage. They transformed into a community kitchen providing biryani to scores of affected people. Funded by the owner of the joint, Sunil Akash, around 500 plates were distributed at Villivakkam on December 7 and 2,000 at Velachery on December 8. Meeting people on the ground, Sunil says, “People joined hands to thank us. They were suffering without food for two or three days. When our van arrived, they were all very happy.” He adds that when he reached the locality, people were in distress, and providing them with food gave them a reason to smile. Apart from distributing biryani, the restaurant also supplied 200 bags of rice.