At noon on November 16 last year, Dharmaraja ran to the terrace of a three-storeyed building in Samatva Periyar Nagar, a neighbourhood in the southern outskirts of Chennai, frantically waving his red shirt. He was trying to catch the attention of an Indian Coast Guard helicopter circling overhead.
It had been almost 36 hours since the 18-year-old had eaten anything and the hunger was making his head spin. And it was closing in on two days since he and 17 other residents had been trapped in the building, which was partially underwater. The floodwaters were everywhere, making his skin shrivel and the soles of his feet peel.
Fortunately, the helicopter spotted the stranded residents. It dropped a can of water and a carton full of biscuits on to the terrace of what must have looked like the first floor of an isolated building in the suburbs.
“We were later told that from above, nobody could see that an entire neighbourhood of 150 huts had submerged under more than 20 feet of water,” said Dharmaraja.
In 2015, the Tamil Nadu capital experienced the heaviest rainfall in a hundred years, resulting in overflowing lakes and canals that flooded thousands of homes. With encroachments and illegal buildings choking Chennai’s waterways and its river mouths clogged with sewage and silt, the city’s drainage system fell apart under the impact.
Then, on December 2, after a fortnight of heavy rain, the Chembarambakkam dam was opened in the early hours of the morning to reduce the dangerously high water levels. This instantly flooded large parts of the city. The residents of Samatva Periyar Nagar call this the “second flood”.
A year later, they still remember it as they do that Sunday morning in November, when the floodwaters caught them unawares for the first time, destroying almost all their possessions and claiming three lives in the neighbourhood.
“If such a disaster strikes us again, none of us will be able to cope with it – physically, financially or emotionally,” said A Amudha, a resident.
Samatva Periyar Nagar came into existence only six years ago. It is located on the banks of the Adyar river, which looks to be little more than a stream here. But in the monsoon, the water level rises to become knee-deep, the residents said.
Most of the people here earlier lived in a slum off the arterial Poonamallee High Road in North-West Chennai and were relocated as part of a road development project.
“Had we continued to live there, we would not have been affected by the floods,” said Dharmaraja. “Only last year, we got to know that this place where we were relocated is actually a floodplain.”
A deluge of memories
The neighbourhood still carries the scars of the flood, of loved ones lost and homes and possessions destroyed.
Outside a straw hut covered in tarpaulin sheets, B Balamma crouches over heated coal blocks, blowing at them through a metal tube while keeping an eye on her three-year-old son. This was not always Balamma’s home. In fact, it belongs to her brother. A little over a year ago, she had her own house two streets away, where she lived with her husband and three sons. The couple were contract workers with a private garbage collection company.
“On November 15 , it was raining heavily, the water started to rise and we left our house,” she said. “Later, we could not see our house anymore. We never thought there would be so much water.”
Balamma and her family took shelter in a nearby school with the rest of their neighbours. But Bhimarao, her husband, decided to go back to the flooded neighbourhood to help his two disabled sisters, who had not yet made it out.
“He swam a certain distance and took shelter for a while,” Balamma said, tears welling up in her eyes. “But maybe he couldn’t swim anymore, because his swollen body was found the next day by a rescue team.”
After Bhimarao’s death, Balamma received Rs 4 lakhs from the government that she turned into fixed deposits for each of her three sons. “But how can that make up for my husband being dead?” she asked.
Struggling to support her children on a meagre income of Rs 200 a day, Balamma has sent her two older boys, aged seven and five, to her native village in Andhra Pradesh. But none of them go to school. “I was not sure if they would remain in Andhra Pradesh or come back to Tamil Nadu, so I did not admit them in school,” she said.
Picking up the pieces
After the floods, the road to recovery has been an arduous one. “When we opened the door to our house, we were knee-deep in muck,” recalled Dharmaraja. “We had to scoop it all out little by little. For many days, we could not lie down or sleep because the floor was damp. We had to sit up and rest.”
S Sundari, who lives alone, had to pump out several buckets of water every day to clean her house. “My joints became so sore that I was advised to undergo an operation,” she said. “But thankfully, I got better with medicine and rest.”
Sundari is thankful for more than that. Her sewing machine, which was her only means of earning a livelihood, was destroyed in the floods. But with the help of the non-profit Arappor Iyakkam, Sundari found a donor in Coimbatore who provided her with a power sewing machine worth Rs 30,000.
Like her, other residents have not forgotten the acts of kindness of strangers who helped rebuild their homes and provided them with essentials when they had none.
“We lost everything in the flood,” said S Jaiseelee, an anganwadi teacher. “Till today, we are running our households with the bedsheets, utensils and clothes given to us as relief material.”
After the floods, the Tamil Nadu government announced that every affected family would be given Rs 5,000 as compensation. But many residents of Samatva Periyar Nagar said they were yet to receive this amount.
“Many of us lost all our documents and papers,” said Amudha. “How were we supposed to fill up any of the forms [for compensation] or even search for our bank account numbers?”
A few months ago, regional news channels in the state predicted that the North-East (October-December) monsoon this year would bring heavier rain than it did last year, filling the residents of Samatva Periyar Nagar with dread. But, to their relief, there was hardly any rain in November.
However, the residents have not yet dropped their guard completely as they are worried about the flood preparations carried out by civic bodies.
Two months ago, the Arappor Iyakkam had organised a public hearing where 20 residents had voiced their concern about the flood risk to their neighbourhood. To their delight, the very next week, the Public Works Department had started desilting the part of the Adyar river flowing through the area, so that the floodwaters could drain into it safely. However, at the same time, department officials also ordered the digging up of smaller channels that, according to the residents, would direct the course of the floodwaters towards Samatva Periyar Nagar.
“This does not seem to have been done with any kind of planning, about how the water can be drained into the river,” said Dharmaraja. “This puts our lives at risk once again.”
For now, the residents are learning to live with the trauma of last year’s flood disaster and worries about the future. “Sometimes, while sleeping, you are still struck with fear,” Dharmaraja said. “Will the water suddenly come into our homes again?”
He added that a lot of people asked him how it had felt to be in that situation. “But only if you experience it at that moment will you understand how it felt,” he said. “Only if you were there would you understand the fear and pain.”