With the birth of a hashtag, #ChennaiRains, a new way to deal with the crisis was born. At least, initially, and for those of us with tech skills. Volunteers in safer places were looking up tweets under this hashtag and attending to people’s needs – checking in on someone’s parents, calling people up, connecting those stuck with rescue workers, aid and more.
As local celebrities like actor Siddharth – who said he “freaked out” that he had lost his house, three studios and three cars for the first time – lent their support, the hashtag gained a lot of momentum. With the help of a more egalitarian medium, radio, and celebrity RJs like Balaji throwing their weight behind it, the social media support spilt over on to the streets.
Massive spontaneous rescue teams were formed across the city. People hired large vehicles to recce flood-hit areas and rescued those stranded, and hundreds reached out with essential supplies. Trucks filled with food, water and more were coming in from states near and far.
The Jain temple on GN Chetty Road churned out 5,000 packets of breakfast, lunch and dinner. All mosques in the city opened up their doors for people irrespective of their faiths. Major cinema halls like Sathyam and Mayajaal also opened their gates to those stranded. Strangers opened up their homes.
Restaurants like the Old Madras Baking Company and Double Roti offered food and a resting place for free to those who were passing by, while Jonah’s and Tryst Cafe delivered it straight to those in need. You could rest assured that if someone in the city was not affected by the floods or had escaped it after being stuck briefly, they were involved in rescue and relief work during those four days in Chennai. The city organised itself in an admirable manner and even in the midst of all that heartbreak, there was something heartwarming happening somewhere in the city.
Like when the young engineer and volunteer, Muhammed Yunus, after hearing about the 800-odd people stuck in Urappakkam, found seven boatmen willing to brave the waters and go on a rescue mission. Chitra, who was pregnant and due in two days, and her spouse Mohan were among those who needed to be rescued. Yunus, along with the boatmen, helped the couple reach safety, from where they made it to a hospital in Perungalathur. Chitra delivered a baby girl and named her Yunus.
Not all help during these floods, however, was ad-hoc. Some, armed with the experience of having worked during several disasters, stepped in, and soon, an assembly-line-like system was set up. Bhoomika Trust, which works in the areas of disaster relief and rehabilitation, networked with many other NGOs and organised one of the largest relief centres in the city.
Bhoomika set up a control room to reroute messages and calls of distress to concerned authorities and teams in the respective zones. A massive community kitchen began operations on 3 December and distributed an average of 30,000 to 40,000 food packages a day through different groups of volunteers and NGOs.
“The community kitchen predominantly coordinated with volunteers and citizens of Chennai. Between 3 December and 9 December, Bhoomika distributed 1,90,000 food packages,” Latha Subramaniam of the trust said. The large community kitchen and the disaster relief kit packing section had over 10,000 volunteers clocking more than 1 lakh volunteer-hours in all.
For 70,000 families going back home after the floods, Bhoomika offered dry ration kits with rice, dal, oil, tamarind and spices for fifteen days. The trust has also been involved in long-term rehabilitation of victims from remote villages and continues to help them with housing.
In the week after the flood, my aunt, who works in a school for Adi Dravida children, told me over the phone that many families near her village outside Chennai had lost everything, and that “her kids” – as she likes to call her students – didn’t have as much as clothes. I was able to quickly source dry rations through Bhoomika for over a hundred families, and what I witnessed when I went to their relief camp was terrific and impressive.
Bhoomika was operating out of a large wedding hall, where I saw hundreds and thousands of people walking in and out with aid. I had no connections to the trust. When I reached there, I called a friend who was volunteering.
The next thing I knew, my aunt was sitting in the front seat of a mini-truck we booked using Lynk, an Uber-like app for trucks, with the dry ration kits. She was also carrying clothes for her students, which I had picked up from my friend Amba’s home, who was also helping out those affected. I had told her about the clothing needs of school children of various ages over Facebook messenger and Telegram. As phone services were largely disrupted, relief work in the days following the floods was organised over social media and WhatsApp.
My appreciation for my smartphone and the interwebs grew manifold that day. But this also highlighted how the divide between those who had access to resources and those who did not was reflected in the digital world as well. This stark digital divide stood out during the floods, alongside the fact that the marginalised across the state were unable to access relief, even though others could claim it easily. It was not for lack of trying. There were forces at play that were working hard to deny some people aid, while ensuring that others got it.
Pianist Anil Srinivasan was involved in rescue, relief as well as rehabilitation of flood victims in the city. During the floods, he worked with the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) over the phone, directing them to people who needed to be rescued. Eighteen other volunteers camped at his third-floor apartment and helped with the coordination. Once rescue work ended, he joined an initiative by the Rotary Club of Madras, of which he is a member, to put together a relief centre.
The Hyatt hotel opened up its storage space as a relief camp as well as provided meals for all the volunteers. Srinivasan, along with Ashok Thakkar of Rotary, wanted to do more. The then commissioner of Chennai Corporation, Vikram Kapoor, told them that children displaced after the floods from the Adyar’s banks to Perumbakkam, an area seventeen kilometres away from their earlier home, needed a school.
Srinivasan donated his entire earnings from 2016 to the school. Vish Vishwanathan of Anuja San Antonio, “a non-profit created to promote sister-city alliance between San Antonio [Texas, USA] and Chennai” too offered support. With the help of doctors in San Antonio, many of whom are from Chennai, and with the help of other NGOs, Vishwanathan managed to raise $200,000.
The Tata group’s CSR initiative donated the remaining funds, Rs 3.9 crore, to complete the school. “It took us until the end of 2016 to raise the funds, Rs 5 crore,” Srinivasan said. “The Corporation of Madras has given us the land. Running around to get permissions took us another six months. The school is now coming up really well. We have a large library space.” This consortium of do-gooders will handover the school for the children of Perumbakkam to the city corporation by June 2019.
The flood has come and gone but the rehabilitation process of those affected continues to this day in Chennai and elsewhere in the state.
Excerpted with permission from Rivers Remember: #Chennairains and the Shocking Truth of a Manmade Flood, Krupa Ge, Context.