Thursday, December 10, 2015

My ordeal with Chennai rains as a Non-Resident Chennaite !

It has been raining (pouring, to be apt) for more than a couple of weeks now in Chennai. My parents have had intermittent power supply (notice that I said power supply, not power failures) and live in Velachery - one of the most inundated parts of Chennai.

London November 30, 2015  4 pm, in my routine call to my Mom, she informed that it had stopped raining and that the Sun was out and she even went out to her Abacus class since last couple of days.

December 01, 2015 10:00 a.m. My Mom and she says that the rains have started again and is pouring heavily. There is water stagnated on the streets and there is no power since yesterday night. It is was not uncommon, when monsoons arrive for people in Chennai.

Rewind a couple of decades....I remember my school days when we used to carry our uniforms in plastic covers, wade through hip deep water, which essentially means your school wear completely drenched. So we could not leave our homes wearing the School uniform. We used to walk till our friends' home - which were closer to the main road & was at a higher level than where our home was at that time - and then change into our school uniforms and leave our wet clothes to dry in their house. While we returned from school we could do the reverse process and then return to our homes, again wading through the stagnant waters. This would be for a week or so every monsoon.

Then I remember campaigns started on rain water harvesting and the storm water drain projects which gave us hope that it might get better in future. But nothing changed much. We eventually started accepting the fact that we should be ready to brave hip-deep water, during the peak raining season. Almost every 10 years, there would be heavy floods which would fill the Adyar & Cooum Rivers to its brink, and the slum dwellers living in its banks would always get displaced due to floods and the excess water that is opened out from the neighbouring lakes and reservoirs. I specifically remember 1986 and 2005 monsoon. In 1986 (the year we moved into our own home after the construction completed), the place where we lived (Guindy) was flooded with hip deep waters for adults and they had to carry us (kids) and our great grandmother (lifted by chair) over their shoulders and walk all the way to the main road.

A picture of the Adyar river from
Saidapet Bridge in 2005 floods
In 2005, after celebrating our first Diwali after marriage in my parents' home in Guindy, we had to move to my apartment (near the Vijayanagar bus terminus), as the water levels were rising, as it was better located. But after 2 days of torrential rain and power failures, we had some more guests seeking asylum, and so we had over 8 people crammed up in my apartment. Adding to this, we were scared that the water would enter my apartment soon, as we were on the ground floor. We cleared out the bottom two shelves and decided to leave to "more" higher ground before it was too late and "migrated" to T.Nagar where my uncle lived. But thankfully the rain stopped in a couple of days and we went back to our respective homes, laughing over our experience. I remember the blog we wrote about it in 2005 with a few pictures that we took then, inside ourapartment complex and the view of Adyar river flowing in full spate under the Saidapet Bridge. There have been many in-between...
2005 Floods: Raft parked just at the
entry to my apartment building

Present day in London.... All these memories were going through my mind when my Mom told me about the consistent rain for more than 10 days in Chennai. As we have gone through this difficult situation very often, I assumed my Mom would have managed it well, stocked up enough food and water to last at least for a week if need be and the only major consequences are due to power failures.

December 2, 2015: I wake up on Wednesday morning,  and go on as usual to get my children to school. My husband was travelling to France. I come back home and try calling my Mom to check if she was OK. I could not reach her and thought maybe due to lack of power her phone battery drained out and then log in to Facebook to see a slew of messages and pictures about the bad situation in Chennai with some places under 6 feet of water !!! For a few seconds I lost all senses... I just sat there still. My fingers went cold and then adrenaline rushed in. I tried reaching out all my contacts in Chennai - family, friends, neighbours, maid, worried sick about their safety. I also tried calling their numbers directly through Viber, WhatsApp, land lines.. But none of them were reachable (later read in the media that cell phone towers were down as well)

December 3, 2015, I wake at 5:30 a.m. (half an hour before the alarm went off) and start calling again. Still the same, no land lines or mobiles reachable. Still no news from home. Facebook and Twitter are "flooded" with NRC's (Non-resident Chennaites) like me, posting messages with addresses of their loved ones and asking for some kind of information on them. None of my friends or family still reachable. But I just keep going through the daily chores as my young family is dependent on my sane condition, especially with my Husband away as well. My husband calls me back in his lunch time (after reading my SOS texts and tweets) and I still have not been able to contact my parents. After sharing my plight with him, I went back to calling  every Chennai number on my address book. Finally by end of the day, I was getting frantic. Meanwhile, my sister (currently in Dubai) seemed to have been lucky to have talked to my Mom (for a few seconds), where we came to know that they were safe, but then the call got disconnected before sharing any additional information. While this provided us with some relief, it did not alleviate our fears as TV channels continue to scare with predictions for rains to continue and intensify during the next 48 hours.

December 4, 2015,  After sleeping for just 5 hours, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. again to a message on WhatsApp from my sister that our parents were heading outside Chennai (to Coimbatore) with my Uncle's family. As their mobile phones were charged (seems they checked in to a hotel the previous night, after being rescued on boat), I was finally able to speak with them. By evening time, I was able to reach all my extended family and friends through WhatsApp or otherwise and learn about their safety and their experiences battling the rains.

The feeling of "helplessness" of not being able to do anything but to dial number after number, to be met with a message that kept saying that "This number is either switched off or not reachable", was so frustrating. The only solace at that time was social networking sites that kept updating more current information (than the TV News channels) and Google emergency response link that had grouped all the information and made it easy to search for.

On the positive side, the response of Chennaites across the world was so heartening. In addition to that, the spirit of the local people & volunteers on the ground was phenomenal. I am thankful to everyone, who directly helped (or indirectly involved in helping) my family and friends to stay safe through this ordeal. A special thanks to the NDRF for going beyond their call of duty to assist massive rescue operations across the city.

Proud to hail from such a city  - that is always ready to stretch a helping hand to anyone in need, without any kind of discrimination, facing adversity or criticism with a smile - shows real spirit & character!!

Words fall short to describe the gruelling experience of those 72 hours, till I could reach family and friends.  Reading my Mom's experience - published in News -  made me re-live the entire emotional roller coaster, worrying for their safety and the safe return of my Husband from France (due to the recent high alert situation post the unfortunate events in Paris during mid November).

In the current age, when lives are claimed so easily due to disasters (natural and man-made), Tamil Nadu and France's solidarity demonstrated during crisis should be a lesson to all of us to understand about Humanity and its strength. We should learn from this and strive consciously do our share (however small it is) to contribute to the betterment of the society as a whole (which is easily possible when we consider the whole world as our own family, or following the concepts "Do unto others what you want for yourself", "Be the change that you wish to see").