The lack of preparedness for the rain over the last few days has left the city battered, even as more rain is predicted this week.

BY JAYASHREE ARUNACHALAM
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY DINAMALAR 

In 30-odd years of living in Chennai, Maheshwari never thought she would one day sail down the streets of Velachery. As rainwater poured into her ground-floor house in R. K. Salai, a team from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) put her and five other residents on to a boat to move them to higher ground.

Sunday was something like the Biblical deluge, with 24.5 centimetres of rain falling on Chennai. It rained from 4.30 a.m. the previous night to late Monday evening with scarcely a break. With the drains unable to cope, water started flooding streets in low-lying areas. Some 600 layouts nearly drowned in the downpour, and emergency response teams rescued thousands of people marooned in their houses. There have been dozens of deaths, mostly in house or wall collapses or flash floods. So far official figures put the number of dead across the state at 79, a number that is rising every day.

The resultant public misery is a source of acute embarrassment for the state government and the Chennai corporation, which claimed it was prepared for the rains back in September. The meteorological department had warned of possible downpours in November. At the time, the corporation boasted it had 43 super suckers, 60 jet rodding machines, and 150 de-silting machines to keep the city going in the worst weather. However, what happened was far beyond the worst scenario.

“Rains of this magnitude are not predictable,” says Paranthaman, zonal officer, Zone VIII of the Corporation of Chennai. “The corporation attended to rain-related issues on a priority basis. We assembled rescue teams and rescue materials in all affected areas. We certainly have the machinery in question mentioned and it is being put to immediate use.”

It’s a broad claim that doesn’t answer questions the recent rains have thrown up.

The corporation began storm water drain projects across 31 canals and four major drainage basins, namely Kosasthalaiyar, Cooum, Adyar and Kovalam, promising to remodel 183 kilometres of drains and construct 321 kilometres of new drains. Multiple deadlines later, it hasn’t reached the halfway mark. The cost has crossed Rs 5,000 crore, on various components of the projects, but change is hard to gauge.

“So far nearly 140 kilometres of the storm water project are complete and progress is made for the rest,” Paranthaman says. “It’s a better situation today than it was in 2005 or even last year. The corporation is a large entity; things cannot happen overnight.”

The drains are only a part of the story. “These are temporary patches,” says Arpan Sundaresan, a professor of water mapping and management who has done extensive research on Chennai’s water management. “Canals and rivers need to be widened, drains to be connected to water bodies. Concrete roads tend to waterlog faster. Things get worse when marshlands are encroached for construction. You can’t ignore these issues and simply focus on one aspect of a huge problem.”

The question of wetland encroachment has come up any number of times with the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), especially after a multi-storey building collapsed in Moulivakkam–a catchment area–last year.

CMDA admits there is a problem. “It’s been brought to our attention that there are some irregularities, but we are in the process of an internal investigation,” says Harish Sethupathi of the CMDA. But he is quick to deny any responsibility for the situation.

“The recent flooding is a result of condition of roads and drainage system. That is not under the jurisdiction of the CMDA and can’t be called our responsibility.” It doesn’t answer the question who allowed realtors to build on marshland. Velachery is just one example.

***

While the finger pointing continued at the apex of the Corporation and CMDA the rest, policemen, corporation and power board workers, and residents of various colonies, the many and the anonymous, worked tirelessly to bring the city back to its feet. Sylendra Babu, Assistant Director General of Police, Coastal Security Group, spent hours at CTO Colony in Tambaram, dragging the boats of rescued residents through floodwaters.

Palani, a corporation cleaner, spent over 20 hours on the roads in the driving rain, mostly in the Madipakkam area where some 30 streets were under water. A tall man in his early twenties, he looks exhausted from his labours. Palani was part of a team of six workers who moved from road to road to unclog drains choked with leaves, mud and overflowing sewage. He also put up markers near open manholes, directed traffic where necessary, and helped residents pump out sewage water from their houses.

“We only did our jobs,” he says, grey shirt and pants soaked from the relentless rain. “My own house in Red Hills has also flooded but I haven’t been able to do anything. There are not enough rescue volunteers for a city of this size.”

Large parts of suburban and south Chennai are still battling stagnant water. Subways in these areas remain closed. Kavarapalayam Lake overflowed its embankments and water poured into surrounding houses. While the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board said power supply was mostly unaffected, it was switched off as a precaution in flood-affected parts of Tambaram, Madipakkam, Mudichur, Velachery and northern Chennai, to avoid electrocution.

The sky finally cleared on Tuesday but large areas of south and north Chennai remain under water. It’s still and stagnant but receding slowly as pumps with thick, long, green tubes snaking out on to higher ground suck up the water and spit it out. Pumping is on hold in Ram Nagar to move fallen trees and branches that have ripped through power lines. Surrounding houses haven’t had electricity for four days. Many have no water.

Residents of most ground-floor flats or houses have either moved out of the neighbourhood or moved into apartments upstairs. The receding water leaves a thick sludge of mud, leaves and sewage.

State rescue teams and corporation volunteers have been supplemented by 400 NDRF personnel in 11 teams to rescue the stranded. The army, air force and coast guard also stepped up to evacuate over 5,000 people, using boats and two Cheetah helicopters, with two light helicopters and two Mi-17V5s on standby. The corporation said 21,500 corporation workers were deployed in water-logged areas.

“We’ve been at it for nearly two days,” says Janardhan of NDRF. “We commissioned boats from some of the fishing communities and loaned out private motors to help pump water out of houses. It’s been hard going as the rain did not ease up till this morning.”

There was also a flurry of activity after chief minister J. Jayalalithaa announced she would visit affected areas in six constituencies. Roads were closed in anticipation of her visits. AIADMK workers stood in hip-deep water in R. K. Nagar, her home constituency, with flags and banners to welcome her, as she spoke to them from her vehicle, assuring them of government support. The Met department has predicted more rain over the next few days, and government support is critical at this juncture.

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