You are caught in a flood, water levels are rising, your phones don’t work and you don’t know what to do. In an ideal world, nobody should be left unprepared and it is the government's responsibility to prepare citizens for any eventuality.

In light of the floods in Chennai, it's particularly important to be aware of what is to be done in these worst-case scenarios. For instance, those living near nuclear plants should swallow potassium iodide tablets in the event of a leak to reduce their risk of getting cancer. They should also be provided with stocks of these tablets on a regular basis.

In the case of a flood, move to higher ground, stock up on food and water, and wait to be rescued. Assuming that the state has warned people in advance of what is to come, people should ration food and drinking water, charge their power banks and phones, if any. Radio transistors that can run on AA batteries, not spotty electricity connections, can become the most reliable source of information.

What is needed above all is a single emergency response number that everyone knows as a matter of course.

“When I am panicking, there should be only one number,” said VR Hari Balaji, a national consultant in disaster management who lives in Chennai. “I shouldn’t be given seven numbers by the government and not know which one to call first.”

When people need help, Hari Balaji added, they need to get a person to respond to their call and take action within 30-40 minutes. Even if there is a delay, it should not go up to the third day, by when anger adds to panic and could result in long-lasting mental trauma.

Hobbled vision

Several cities in India, including Chennai, already have disaster management plans. The district of Gurgaon has a comprehensive plan that notes down actions to the tiniest detail, including forms with checklists for medical facilities, communications and demobilisation of sick personnel.

All states also have plans, at least on paper. But in 2013, a Comptroller and Auditor General analysis of disaster management in India was scathing about states' readiness to deal with any calamity. It spoke of disaster management committees that never convened, plans resting only on paper and training never happening.

This lack of training is one of the most glaring gaps in addressing disasters.

Ideally, five departments, including revenue, public health, fire, police and the municipal corporation should coordinate during a disaster. While commands should flow down from the chief minister or prime minister’s office depending on the scale of the event, people on the lower rungs should also know what to do.

“My understanding of disaster will be different from a doctor’s, which will be different from that of the police,” Hari Balaji said. “We have to train personnel to know whom to contact and how information should flow.”

Wake-up call

India began to seriously seriously into disaster management only after a tsunami devastated vast areas along the eastern coast in December 2004. A year later, the Lok Sabha passed the Disaster Management Act under which the National Disaster Management Authority was established.

Preparing for any disaster has two aspects, said General NC Vij, the first chairman of the authority. One is how a state might respond immediately. The second, which can only be done in the long term, is to take structural steps to mitigate any possible disaster.

“Mitigation is one direction in which we need lots of improvement,” Vij said. All cities, he pointed out, have concrete structures built on areas that were once the escape routes for water. Every time there is a flood in an urban area, water cannot flow out. “You see this happening in Srinagar, Mumbai and Chennai,” he added. “It requires serious handling by the state and cannot be solved overnight.”

A decade later, little seems to have changed.

Essential services

According to Vij, the four key services a government should aim to provide immediately after a calamity are food, drinking water, health and evacuation, even if the last is not immediately possible.

Those in rescue camps should be watchful about health. With luck and some planning, officials will have medication at hand for diarrhoea, cholera and measles. Not considered as often are hygiene supplies such as sanitary napkins or even toilets. Another pitfall, Hari Balaji said, is the very real possibility of human trafficking of children in camps, particularly when they have been separated from their parents.

The least visible trauma lines are often psychological ones.

“If I have a broken arm, I am given a red tag and rushed to a hospital,” Hari Balaji said. “But imagine people who have lost their loved ones or their savings of a lifetime. Unless I am crying, nobody will speak to me. These things have to be foreseen. Those with a clinical psychology background can help people to come out of it mentally.”

Requisitioning all these should ideally be a part of standard protocol.

Drilling it in

This year, Hari Balaji spent 150 days travelling to all 32 districts of Tamil Nadu to train public health officials and to circulate a manual in this regard. He has spent the last four years training officials across the country in disaster management.

All his training sessions involve case study analyses in groups, where officials discuss different strategies to mitigate and respond to disasters. The sessions end with officials given real-time scenarios to respond to without being told in advance what they will face.

“Better than contributory training, it should be participatory,” said Hari Balaji. “We need to have mock drills so they are habituated to it. It should not be that officials have to open their manual to refer to this section number on what to do when a flood has come. They should already know what to do and be ready to prepare the public.”

The armed forces stationed nearby are often best prepared, Vij said. Whenever a new regiment moves into an area, part of their training protocol is to study and prepare disaster response plans complete with maps and logistical information, such as where to source vehicles and old forms of communication. They are also supposed to regularly brief state officials on these matters.

“Even the Disaster Response Force which has gone to Chennai now will be familiar with the area,” he said. “They are full-time personnel like the Rashtriya Rifles and knowledge will not be lacking. But the government still has to provide medical supplies, food, casualty evacuations and doctors.”