Salaam Chennai

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As Chennai’s streets turned incredibly and unbelievably into virtual rivers that swirled and sloshed around the homes of lakhs of residents in various areas in the first week of December, the metro unraveled a face few suspected it had.

When an unprecedented bout of rains battered the city — upto 40 cm in Chembarambakkam, a major catchment area, 34 cm in Tambaram and 29 cm in Nungambakkam met regions in 24 hours, which is akin to 60 to 80 per cent of the North East Monsoon rainfall in a day — Chennai had little chance. This was the record of a century and most parts of the city resembled little islands. As water entered homes and destroyed what had been painstakingly put together over years, nay decades…. the house itself, with TV, refrigerator, furniture, kitchen appliances and utensils, there were heartrending tales of loss, pain and grief.

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Over 260 people lost their lives in the flood fury and lakhs were rendered homeless, many fleeing their homes with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing. Trains were cancelled, diverted, the waterlogged Chennai airport had to be shut down. These images will
stay etched in memory forever … men and women ploughing through

waist-deep water holding close to their hearts their babies covered in blankets, sometimes only plastic sheets to keep them dry; sobbing men telling reporters and volunteers how they had helplessly watched an entire lifetime’s hard work washed away in the flash of the eye; courageous women hanging on to life.

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Chennai’s sorrow and disaster resonated in Paris at the world climate
summit. In print and electronic media experts debated on the link between the Chennai deluge and global warming and of course the El Nino effect. Just as had happened during the flooding of Mumbai in June this year, heated charges were heaped on the authorities. While politicians traded charges and bureaucrats
faced heat from experts and citizens for allowing unauthorised construction, at the end of the day it was man’s greed for land that caused this tragedy. Land that was reclaimed from the dry and parched banks of several swamps, marshland and areas that were once lakes.

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It is difficult to believe that barely a month ago Chennai’s residents were grappling with water shortage with doomsday predictions about worse days ahead as Chennai’s reservoirs ran dry. Who’d have imagined that huge quantities of precious water from these reservoirs would soon be discharged; that from the Chembrambakkam lake flooded the Adyar river winding through a big part of the city. The dirty waters of a flooded Cooum — there’s been talk forever of cleaning it but nothing has been done — further ravaged the city.

Social media to the rescue

Amazingly, as the low lying areas flooded, twitter and Facebook (FB) started buzzing with numerous messages from citizens, offering help. With the hashtags #Chennairains, #Chennaiflood and #Chennaifloodhelp on twitter, Chennaites started sharing helpline numbers. And FB was abuzz with posts from voluntary groups on what was needed, what was not needed, where it should be sent, or what number to call to pick up food or relief material. The numbers shared were more of volunteer groups than the Chennai Corporation or government helplines. These were numbers and addresses of voluntary groups which had sprung up without any notice, without any planning or commandeering, to help their fellow citizens in distress. The Indian Army, Navy and Air Force moved in after the second day of the deluge. Strapping young men, dressed in shorts or dhoties tied around their waists, waded through waist and even chest deep water to rescue citizens trapped in inundated homes … mostly children, elderly and women who were petrified at the sight of all that water angrily swirling around them. In no time a map had sprung up — later I learnt it was the work of someone in Bengaluru who wanted to help — showing inundated, distressed areas. Tragically two volunteers have died, as I write this.

Chennaites opened their houses and hearts to people, and these included PDG Raja Seenivasan and Rtn Jayanthi Seenivasan; the latter said on FB that her doors were open. D 3230 DG C R Raju went into a huddle with the CII, Ramakrishna Mission and Infosys and formed a steering committee which will first deal with health-related issue and then concentrate on rehabilitation. PDG G Olivannan was busy marshalling relief and food.

No intolerance here

Under the caption, “Chennaites have reminded us what we had forgotten as a nation,” there were several tweets and FB messages on how people had reached out to help others irrespective of their religion, caste or class. A bearded gentleman stuck at Chennai airport tweeted how he felt “very safe” because he was at Chennai.

Community halls and kitchens, marriage halls and places of worship — mosques, temples, churches, gurudwaras — all pitched in with shelter and food. The Jain community was active on social media posting telephone numbers offering food delivery. Doctors offered free service.

One volunteer group you couldn’t miss on FB was led by Sam Paul, among the first to jump in with a massive rescue effort, reaching help, food and water, medicines, clothes, blankets, etc to distressed people. In one of his first posts on FB, he said that he’d been involved in rescue work for 10 hours and “today I saw something which is what Chennai is all about. Muslims helping Hindus in more than 7 feet water. Hindus helping Christians. Christians helping Muslims. And all the combinations possible. Nobody cared which religion they were from. Nobody cared for recognition. They only wanted to save lives. They only wanted to help. This is our city. Proud of u Chennai; this is why we will bounce back stronger than ever and more united than ever. Jai Hind.”

In another post three days later, he said his group had reached almost 2 lakh people with food and other rescue work. “Lot of people ask me whether we need money but in the last 3 days irrespective of all the work we did, we did not feel the need for money.” And this was thanks to his 30 dedicated volunteers — “young boys and girls who come early in the morning and are there till late in the night. Standing outside in the rain waiting to unload food from donors and to load them into delivery vans…. It isn’t easy but these kids did it with such joy and enthusiasm.”

The help that poured in from Bengaluru was unbelievable and heartwarming. Volunteers brought relief material, dosai and wheat dough — in one case for one lakh rotis — and some offered a ferry service in their vehicles for the stranded who wished to move to Bengaluru. Who’d think the two States fight over Cauvery waters?

Indian innovation, jugad to the rescue

There were others who did not wait for help and were smart enough to save themselves. When one of the localities in Perungudi, a well established IT hub, was totally flooded, with the waters creeping upon them in the dead of night, the residents were stumped. They had no time to plan, as suddenly on Tuesday night the water level rose when they were fast asleep and they find water all around them.

Without waiting for outsiders to help them, they began organising rescue. They got hold of large plastic bags — is there a dearth of them in any Indian home? — and filled them with empty plastic bottles, foam and other packing material available, and any other lightweight stuff in the house. When the devices were large enough to float with people, they put some planks inside the bags, and quickly used these “boats” to flee to safety. With 25 such “boats” at least 70 per cent of the residents were able to escape the flooded locality.

NDRF, Army use social media

Smartly and effectively, the NDRF (National Disaster Relief Force) desk in Delhi closely monitored the social media, picked up messages of distress and calls for help and posted quick responses such as “noted”, “passed to field teams, “will do needful”. It was heartening to see the Indian Defence forces rescue people from all over the city. Sukanya, a 7-month pregnant woman, trapped in her flooded house had given up all hopes of being rescued, but she was airlifted from her home near Guindy in Medavakkam, one of the worst affected areas, along with her 3-year-old daughter by the Indian Air Force and brought to the Tambaram Air Base in a Chetak helicopter.

Similarly about 50 stranded students were rescued from the SRM University and arrangements were made for those from Bengaluru and Delhi to be sent home.

Forget people, there was thought and concern for trapped animals too. Social media was replete with Chennaites saying they had been rescued but would someone please rescue their trapped cats or dogs. Blue Cross responded to a tweet about five tiny orphaned pups, and within a few hours rescued them.

But while Chennaites rose to the occasion and helped save so many lives, it will take a long time for this wonderful city to get back to its feet. And somewhere people will need to fix accountability. And ask questions to Chennai’s planners — for building a brand new airport on the floodplains of the Adyar river; a sprawling bus terminus in the flood-prone Koyambedu and huge buildings on marshlands and waterbeds, totally choking drainage channels. Rehabilitation work will be gigantic too, and will have to be spread over years, and hopefully Rotary India will do its bit.

But while marveling at a face of Chennai that was little-known for all these magical qualities of its citizens — smart, Internet and social media savvy, generous, courageous, helpful, innovative, the last word has to go to Vaishna Roy of The Hindu. She saw a chilling FB video of a couple on a scooter who would have got washed away by the gushing water, but for passing motorists quickly forming a human chain and rescuing them. But then, she says, Chennai had always been thus. While stranded on a busy road when her car stalled, “a taciturn Good Samaritan has sprung up from nowhere to help. Stuck in a cafeteria while it poured outside, one man has actually walked me the few steps to my car under his umbrella. There is a gentle sweetness to the Chennaite that is hard to see but impossible to overlook. And it comes to the fore each time someone somewhere needs help.”

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