Marooned in Chennai

An aspiring TV journalist from Chennai-based Journalism College recounts details of her experiences when incessant rains and deadly flooding paralyzed the city.

It had been raining heavily for a month and Chennai was transforming itself from a sweaty furnace to a frigid shower that had no drain. Roads were flooded, traffic was at a snail’s pace - yet the city went on.

In the third week of November 2015, reports were coming in that slums on the banks of the Adyar and Cooum rivers were being washed away. These rivers wind their way through the entire city.

On our way back from a reporting assignment, we saw a lot of people peering over the Adyar Bridge.

What we saw stopped us in our tracks.

Marooned in Chennai-1Three rows of apartments stood like forlorn trees submerged in the middle of lakes. Water was up to the first floor (We were told that a few days ago it was up to the third floor). Right next to them was a desolate playground, the top bit of a rusted see-saw peeking out of the water like a grotesque lotus. People were wading through thigh-high water, weeks-old garbage nudging at their sides like pets hungry for attention.

I shuddered to think how they managed to live the past four days with all that waste floating around in their homes. A boat, the hardy wooden type, was ferrying people and food supplies to those marooned. All the water was pumped out late that evening and we thought that was the last of the rain-related woes.

On Wednesday, 2nd December, college was closed due to heavy rain. The day was spent in hostel playing cards by torchlight, munching on the snacks that we pooled together and reading. At night, they turned on the generator in the canteen and we joked about how it looked like a first-world refugee site. People were huddled on the floor near plug points, clutching their phones, laptops and power banks for dear life.

That night it poured like there was no tomorrow.The rains had left the walls of our room damp and rampant with mould. We waited for the rains to let up and walked to the nearest grocery stores to get some cleaning supplies. I saw frogs wading through the streams that filled the gutters - brown smelly water was everywhere. I can’t imagine how people survived living with it surrounding them day in and day out.

I didn’t have to worry about food because the men and women who work at the canteen braved the rains to come to college to make sure we didn’t miss a single meal. Even the evening tea wasn’t scrapped - we had black tea for a few days because there wasn’t any milk or sugar available.

We had it so much better than most of Chennai. With no electricity and no cell reception, we were completely cut off from the outside world. We didn’t know the staggering extent of the devastation that those outside Chennai saw through TV news and newspapers. I feel an acute case of survivor’s guilt when someone asks me how I’m doing and whether I’m ok. It feels wrong and misguided somehow; like I won the lottery on someone else’s ticket. That’s a terrible analogy but it did feel like that.

In other ways, it woke me up to the ground reality too. We volunteered to help pack food to be distributed to relief camps. It was humbling to meet people who had spent days dashing from one place to another, collecting funds, participating in rescue efforts, distributing supplies and being an immense support to those affected. One woman had helped collect 1.5 lakhs in a day.

Many volunteer groups had sprung up. Some collected medicines, food, clothes - some even rescued animals.Another relief camp that we volunteered at, was where we had to sort out and organize donations. The place was beset with massive cartons from different homes. Biscuits, washing soaps, toothbrushes, underwear, rice, lentils, clothes were all packed into cloth bags. One problem was that clothes were donated with a lot of heart but without thought. For example, women who have spent their entire lives wearing sarees were handed skinny jeans and strappy tops.

Friends who went with distribution teams recounted how the homes they visited were still unlivable. Although water had been drained out, they couldn’t stay because of stink.On our way back, our cab driver told us how his family (including a 9-month-old and a 2-year-old) - had to depend on food that was cast from helicopters. All this household items were spoilt.

It’s going to be an uphill struggle for him and so many others in Chennai, one that is going to continue long after the spotlight has gone off of City.

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