How the city braved it out

When Chennai was sinking, the government machinery was absent for all practical purposes. It was the civil society and volunteer groups, cutting across caste, creed and religion, which came to people’s rescue, scripting extraordinary stories of everyday courage, sacrifice and resilience.

Published : Dec 09, 2015 17:30 IST

People being evacuated by fishermen who had brought their boats to badly hit localities.

People being evacuated by fishermen who had brought their boats to badly hit localities.

ON the night of December 1, the north-east monsoon, intensified by a well-marked trough of low pressure off the Bay of Bengal, unleashed an eight-hour spell of torrential rain in Chennai that completely devastated the metropolis.

No one realised the extent of its ferocity then. But the dawn revealed the enormity of the tragedy that was unfolding—the city was virtually drowning. The precipitation was so heavy in the preceding 12 hours that the rivers swelled, leading to the breaching of tanks, bunds and embankments, with waters overflowing from the discharge channels that criss-cross the city. A meteorological department communiqué said that the city realised 1,197 mm of rain in November, the highest in almost a century. The previous record for November was 1,088 mm, recorded in 1918.

The city’s heavily encroached and silted storm water drainage system, already stretched to its limit by the first spell of heavy rain a couple of weeks earlier, buckled under the load of water that filled the city’s roads, lanes and even houses. No area was spared from waterlogging in the sprawling city that houses 4.8 million people, with a population density of 14,350 per square kilometre, the third densest city in the country, after Kolkata (23,900) and Mumbai (29,650).

What happened thereafter is the story of brave survival strategies. Chennaiites fought back tenaciously, when the State administration remained supremely inactive for a full 36 hours. Almost half the population had lost all its material possessions, and the flood did not discriminate between rich and poor, throwing them out onto the streets and rendering them internally displaced persons in their own city.

The deluge, moving into the city and its suburbs from different directions, almost wiped out the possessions and livelihoods of lakhs of people. It is an indisputable fact that the evacuation was delayed by nearly 48 hours in Mudichur and the areas between Velachery and Tambaram. In areas such as Virugambakkam, Ashok Nagar, K.K. Nagar, Kotturpuram, Thoraipakkam, Manapakkam and Urapakkam, relief measures had not reached the people even after two days. “Some of these areas are in the heart of the city, too,” pointed out Navaneethakrishnan, a city resident. But the affected citizens braved it out with their indomitable spirit and exemplary courage. Yes, there was panic and fear about the unknown in what until then had been a safe environment for them. Even the tsunami that hit Chennai was not this destructive since the havoc it wreaked was confined largely to rural pockets in Nagapattinam and Kanyakumari districts.

“We almost drowned in the water. There was waist-deep water in the ground floor of the house and we had to live for nearly three days on the first floor without food, power and water. We panicked when we could not reach out to anyone in the initial hour when the flood waters came inside in huge columns,” said V. Mariappan, a resident at Puzhuthivakkam, one of the affected areas in the city. Similar stories of fear and despair could be heard from many others. But the sense of community that the victims forged in their neighbourhoods helped them cope with the crisis. After they got over the initial shock, people began to help one another.

The crisis threw up a number of heroes and, sadly, some martyrs too. Two youth volunteers reportedly lost their lives. Many had turned good Samaritans and strangers became saviours. It was a story with a fairy-tale ending for those who survived the adversity, not because they were brave but because the circumstances challenged their innermost instincts of humanism. There were many who bravely plunged into the swirling floodwaters to save the lives of others.

Volunteerism emerged as the mainstay of the initial stages of the rescue operations. Many organisations and local youths, split into different groups, joined hands in rescuing people from marooned areas. In the face of the crisis, cultural differences disappeared. The doors of mosques, churches and temples were thrown open to the flood victims, who were also served food there.

Muslims at the forefront A heart-warming scene amidst scenes of despair and gloom was of volunteers from the Muslim community serving food to those who were housed in the Sri Parthasarathy Temple in Triplicane. Muslim youth also led rescue operations in the worst-hit areas in and around Tambaram.

A successful software entrepreneur, Mohammed Yunus, saved Mohan and his pregnant wife Chitra from the floodwaters in Urapakkam, when their house came under water. Chitra gave birth to a healthy baby girl immediately after the rescue. Mohan, as a mark of gratitude, named the new-born Yunus. In his Facebook page he said: “We have named the girl Yunus. We take pride in this. You [Yunus] are our leader and government sir.”

Mohan’s post summed up the spirit of humanism among people and exposed the ineffectiveness of the state apparatus which had let people down in the time of crisis. Yet another team of volunteers, led by Yakoob of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK), were in the floodwaters round the clock for three days, saving scores of people in Mudichur and Tambaram. They were one of the first groups of volunteers to engage in rescue operations.

They hired small boats and also made makeshift rafts with two or three kerosene tins tied together. Yakoob told the media that they had to take up rescue operations since there was no one from the government to help the affected people. “Had we not acted in time, many would have perished,” he said. The TMMK and other groups, such as the Ramakrishna Mission, played an important role in this hour of crisis.

Good Samaritans The tragedy turned many individuals into good Samaritans. Fifty-five-year-old Radha, a milk delivery woman in Ashok Nagar, who braved the rising waters to deliver milk sachets to her customers even when they were being sold elsewhere at Rs.100 for half a litre (the actual price is Rs.20); a call taxi driver who braved the heavy rain on the night of December to drop a customer at the airport to catch a flight to the United States; and the volunteer John in MKB Nagar, who served as a bridge between the affected people and rescue teams in Kotturpuram for three days continuously; these people stood out as redeemers.

Fishermen, literally living on the margins of the urban sprawl, brought their boats and catamarans to the flood-hit areas in mini vans and lorries to assist the rescue teams. Necessity forced many to adopt innovative methods to tide over the crisis. Cars and autorickshaws used long rubber tubes to prevent the flood water from entering the exhaust tubes and ferried people from marooned pockets. Displaced people in Anna Salai used a row of mini vans with tarpaulin covers on top as temporary shelters.

“Where can we go? All the places, schools and government buildings in which we used to stay in times of distress are under water now. We prefer to live on the road in the vans,” said Murugan, a labourer who was living behind a mosque at Anna Salai. Food and water were not the problem for them. “Many people have come and distributed food and water in the past three days. But what we need is a shelter from rain and cold,” said 60-year-old Arumugam, who works as a sweeper in a nearby cinema complex.

There were also many faceless unsung heroes. Doctors posted their mobile numbers, asking affected people to contact them in case of emergencies. Policemen constantly warned motorists about the dangers that were lurking on the roads below sheets of water. Workers from the Chennai Corporation, the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board and many autorickshaw drivers worked tirelessly under trying circumstances to help people in different localities.

An FM channel, Chennai Live (104.8 FM), functioned virtually round the clock for days together, providing vital inputs on the rain, the floods, and rescue and relief efforts to different groups for close coordination. Sections of the electronic and print media, too, disseminated timely information on the flood-affected areas to ensure speedy relief and rescue operations.

Political parties, malls, wedding halls and multiplexes threw their doors open to the displaced. The Kerala government announced that those who wanted to travel out of Chennai would be transported free and provided 60 buses. Karnataka too followed suit. After resumption of bus and train services, a staggering two lakh people who had lost their belongings in floods left Chennai on December 4 and 5.

A few SUV owners even operated free transport services to those who wished to go to Bengaluru. Many individuals also offered their flats and houses to those who had been displaced.

A few organisations stood out for their perfect coordination and prompt delivery of relief measures. The Bhoomika Trust, set up in February 2001 to provide disaster relief and rehabilitation, was one of the organisations that set up a control room at the Real Image office in Chennai and began coordinating the efforts of various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and individuals.

The trust has worked extensively with victims of natural disasters such as the earthquake in Gujarat in 2001 and the tsunami in south India in 2004. It also works with experts in the field of relief and rehabilitation to foster a spirit of public-private partnership and to avoid duplication of efforts. Preparing food, identifying areas that needed food and distributing it from a central kitchen was a massive exercise.

“This has been kept up for more than a week and will continue till such time the need exists,” said P. Jayendra, a trustee. NGOs such as Banyan went beyond their mandate of working with the mentally ill and the destitute and made sure that food and water was available in all the localities. Periyar Thidal, the headquarters of the Dravidar Kazhagam, and Loyola College functioned as centres coordinating relief measures. “Hotbreads” Mahadevan, who runs a chain of restaurants across the world, set up kitchens in Chennai and Cuddalore and was working with the control rooms to reach stranded people with food and water.

With Net connectivity remaining mostly operational despite the failure of mobile networks, the interventions of the social media in the crisis were quite significant. Those on Facebook and Twitter ensured the effective coordination of collecting the various consignments of relief materials that arrived from different centres and routing them to the agencies engaged in rescue and relief operations. A round-the-clock virtual control room was set up to coordinate the work with a couple of senior IAS officers and a host of software professionals.

But it was not all rosy. The darker shades of the city also came to the fore. With train and bus services disrupted, it was reported that many who wanted to leave the city were fleeced by vehicle operators. Though a few private bus operators offered free services for two days to those who wanted to leave the city, many private operators charged them heavily. “A ticket to Villupuram, a town about 170 kilometres from Chennai, cost Rs 1,500,” said a student of a private engineering college.

Milk, water and vegetables became dearer, putting people to untold hardship. Unscrupulous traders exploited the opportunity to the maximum. The only transport services in the city that functioned without a hitch were the Metro, operating between Alandur and Koyambedu, and the MRTS train service between Chennai Beach and Velachery stations. Both operate on elevated tracks.

Collapse of infrastructure The city was plunged into darkness for three days due to power shutdown. Homes and hospitals went without power, forcing people to scramble for candles and match boxes, which had become dearer. In a shocking incident, 18 patients, who were undergoing treatment at a highly sophisticated corporate hospital, died, allegedly owing to lack of oxygen supply in its intensive care unit, though the hospital administration stoutly denied it. The critically ill had to be moved to government-run hospitals, which functioned without any interruption.

Those who had been living in the virtual world of mobiles, laptops and computers, oblivious to the stark reality of the real world, were jolted out of their comfort zones. The prolonged power outage made the use of electrical and electronic appliances impossible. Private mobile operators went off the air from December 2, virtually bringing the entire communication system down.

Only the state-owned BSNL offered some connectivity. Cash transactions could not be carried out since nearly 2,000 ATMs in the city were not functional while another 3,000 did not have any cash, accentuating the agony further. Petrol pumps too ran out of stock.

Amid all this chaos and confusion, one entity was conspicuous by its absence in most places—the State administration.

Even 36 hours after the torrential rain and deluge, with lakhs of people marooned, the administration largely remained incommunicado.

The longer it took for the State government to react, the worse the tragedy became. It even prompted the actor Kamal Haasan to say that the entire system “had collapsed”. He said: “It will take Chennai months to get back to normal even when the rains stop. Where is all of the taxpayers’ money going?”

The crucial lack of coordination in the initial stages between the State and the National Disaster Response Force and the Defence Forces to launch full-scale rescue operations compounded the misery of thousands of people who were trapped in inundated houses even as the water level kept rising and hopes of getting rescued kept receding with every passing minute.

One incident highlighted the inordinate delay by the state machinery to act. The Kancheepuram Superintendent of Police issued a late evening warning on December 1, asking people to avoid the 35-kilometre stretch from Perungalathur to Chengalpattu via Urapakkam on the Chennai-Tiruchi Grand Southern Trunk Road as it was “unsafe” due to swirling waters from adjacent tanks that were flooding the highway then.

But, by then, hundreds of vehicles had already been trapped in the rising water level. “We got stranded in a car at Urapakkam junction for nearly eight hours, from 12:30 p.m., while the water level on the road was rising alarmingly. In the pitch dark and the torrential rain, we were clueless about where to go and seek safety,” said a software engineer, who underwent an unimaginable ordeal that night.

What happened on the highway thereafter was a salute to human perseverance and camaraderie. Stranded people left their vehicles, formed human chains and moved in small knots on the carriageway, braving chest-deep water that flowed with a strong current. They scrambled onto larger vehicles such as buses and lorries to escape the fury of the flood. Later, they moved into the nearby SRM University campus at Kattankulathur, which provided them shelter and food for the night. The software engineer reached her home in Kodambakkam the next day at 5 p.m. It was an arduous 29-hour journey for a distance of just 20 kilometres.

The irony is that it is not as if the city is a stranger to such “unprecedented” rainfall. In fact, it faced almost similar situations in 1964, 1976, and in 2005 when heavy to very heavy rainfall was recorded. But the city had a robust system in place then to take on the heavy overflows. A few localities near waterbodies and rivers used to get flooded for a day or two. The victims mostly were from the lower middle class and the poor.

The greed of capital has led to an unscientific infrastructure development and a real estate boom that has swallowed vast tracts of common property and wetlands, which the British classified into general poramboke (common land), eri poramboke , (land mass adjoining waterbodies) meichal poramboke (grazing land), etc., as essential buffer zones for harvesting, storing and draining water.

The disaster has also exposed the soft underbelly of the State government. In fact, exotic phrases such as “2020 Vision Document” and “Make In India” do not talk about inclusive growth and have excluded holistic development of urban habitations, which are already under enormous stress, thanks to unplanned expansion.

“The opening up of the economy and the sweeping development of the information technology and the real estate sectors in an unscientific way have converted Chennai into a concrete jungle,” said a water expert.

Another disaster of this type, experts warn, could prove dangerous for the city and its people. It is a wake-up call for the State government to forge a better and well-coordinated disaster management plan. Environmentalists who met at the COP21 Paris Climate Summit have also reportedly warned that Chennai could see more such rain in the future.

Any economic development must be environmentally sustainable. The issues that face policymakers today relate to resurrecting the city, which is in ruins, and rebuilding the lives of its citizens. The floods have taken a heavy toll on the city’s road and other infrastructure, which means that recovery is going to be slow and painful.

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