Even as Chennai and its neighbouring districts were reeling from the devastation of cyclone Michuang, a second major deluge paralysed four districts — Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi (Tuticorin), Tenkasi and Kanyakumari — in southern Tamil Nadu, as extremely heavy rains pounded the region for a week in December. Several towns and villages were ravaged and farmlands destroyed. Every small river and tributary had turned into lethal water streams across the four districts.
Stranded residents sought refuge on rooftops and tree branches, and many people were evacuated and camped in various relief centres. The NDRF and the Indian Navy stepped up to expedite rescue operations. Boats and fire engines were pressed into service; and helicopters distributed food packets to the marooned.
Rotarians came together to provide immediate relief and coordinated with RID 3212. DG Muthiah Pillai said Kayalpatnam in Thoothukudi district recorded a staggering 110cm rainfall in a single day. In Eral, a commercial town on the banks of Thamirabarani, people were stranded for three days without food and electricity, and roads were washed out in the floods, “which took them back 40–50 years.”
Power outage and communication breakdown added to people’s woes. “Rotarians swung into action and worked round the clock, accompanying rescue teams in boats to save people,” said Pillai. He recalled a scenario in a remote village where about 70 families were marooned. The village had a couple of concrete houses where women and children took shelter while the men climbed on to tree branches as the water levels rose to 7–11ft. “We went in boats to rescue them.”
As the rains abated, it was time to focus on providing food. Ramamurthy, a member of RC Udumalpet, RID 3203, who runs a school in Udumalpet was the first to arrive with 20,000 chapatis and tomato chutney cooked by his students and their parents for distribution to the flood victims. Soon two community kitchens — one, in association with the Bhoomi Foundation, Chennai, along with some IAS officers, at the St Mary’s College in Thoothukudi; and another one at the Sakthi Peedam which was an initiative of the district Rotarians — helped provide food for thousands of people for five days.
SPIC Nagar, a sprawling township in Thoothukudi was inundated under 5–7 feet water from the breached water bodies. “The SPIC factory suffered a loss of around ₹500–600 crore; raw material, finished products and equipment were all submerged in the flood waters,” says V Sundaresan, president of RC SPIC Nagar, a corporate club with factory staff as members. The club distributed food, basic medicines and other essentials to labourer families residing around the township.
Even the corporate’s whole-time director was one of the beneficiaries of the Rotary community kitchen. With water level rising he had to move out with his family and pet dog to a safer place for two nights. Pillai recalled him saying: “There was no time to think about taking anything with us. Soon my daughters started feeling hungry and that’s when I heard about Rotary distributing rotis. God bless you all. I have all the money but am totally helpless.”
There was a critical need for drinking water and sanitary pads. Over 50,000 napkins were distributed — 30,000 sponsored by the DG and 25,000 pads were sponsored by sanitary pad manufacturers Bella, Erode.
After the rains had stopped and people got back to their homes, it was time to distribute flood relief kits. The first consignment of 500 grocery kits came from RC Dindigul, RID 3000, and 300 kits containing clothes and groceries from RC Karaikudi, RID 3212. RID 3201 DG Vijayakumar, along with DGN Chella Raghavendra, flagged off four trucks with 2,300 flood relief kits put together by 50 Rotary clubs of Coimbatore. Each kit costing ₹1,700 had 37 items comprising clothes for men, women and children, blankets, candles, provisions and basic sanitary material.
The relief kits were delivered at people’s doorsteps by Rotarians across these districts. “In many places we had to wade through knee-deep water, carrying the kits on our head,” says RC Pearl City Tuticorin president Mohamed Ibrahim. The DG visited three belts to distribute relief material to people. “Many houses were badly damaged, and the appliances beyond repair. It was heart-wrenching to see children crying in hunger, and the old and the disabled struggling to keep themselves safe.”
RCs Udumalpet, Udumalpet Tejas, Salem South, Sathyamangalam, Bangalore Ulsoor, Bangalore Engage India, Vellore and Rotary clubs of 3231 and 3232 had sent truck-loads of relief material. “The total monetary value of our flood relief aid is ₹2 crore. Now we have a good surplus of these kits,” smiles the DG. Earlier as the calamity unfolded, Pillai had communicated with RID Anirudha Roychowdhury “who sent a circular to every district to help our people find their feet again.”
Many Rotary clubs transferred funds to the District Funds of RID 3212. RID 3000 PDG P Gopalakrishnan deposited ₹1.5 lakh collected from Rotary clubs in Karur. RCs Sivakasi, Virudhunagar and Sivakasi Sparkler helped with the funds initially to prepare and distribute food. RID 3203 DG Sundararajan donated ₹2 lakh which was utilised to reconstruct a house damaged by the floods for a blind person.
“Even as the deluge began, my co-governors from 3201, 3203, 3204, 3231 and 3232 called. All of them had this to say: Don’t worry, we’ll pitch in with all that we can,” Pillai said.
Now that the worst is over, the focus has shifted to rehabilitation. “We want to give back people their lifeline and help them re-build their livelihood,” he said. Eral, a town that used to always bustle with shoppers on Christmas eve, looks deserted and gloomy. “A week right before Christmas, textile, firecracker and grocery shops have all been washed away,” said Sundaresan.
Pillai recalled visiting a polio-affected youth who was operating an eatery on a push cart. “He was left with nothing after the floods. So we got him a stove, utensils, tables and chairs, repaired the push cart, and provided him a week’s stock of groceries — all worth ₹20,000. He was happy to kickstart his business the next day, busy dishing out dosas, puris and piping hot idlis.” Ajees, president of RC Tisayanvilai Elite, related how the club helped a widow with a six-month-old child by giving her “₹10,000 to rebuild her petty shop and also paid ₹12,000 annual rent to the landlord who, inspired by our service, reduced it from ₹1,300 to ₹1,000 a month.”
Now the Rotarians are receiving requests for repairing homes. “The flood has left large deposits of clay in the fields which will take months to clear. Livestock have been washed off. Around 200 families have asked for goats. The Thoothukudi belt, known for its salt pans, has suffered a huge loss, along with the brick kilns on the river banks,” said Pillai.
Discussions are on to seek CSR support for the rehabilitation work and to build low-cost shelters “within a budget of ₹2.5 lakh, as done in Kerala and the Northeast. As we meet these people, we are overwhelmed by their expectations and the hope that Rotary can reverse their plight,” said Pillai.