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First-person account: Chennai floods fail to dissolve the resilient urban spirit

Evelyn Ratnakumar
3rd Dec 2015
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What do you do when your beloved city is ravaged by torrential rains, the likes of which this generation has never seen? You can yell till you're hoarse about the inefficiencies of an ill-prepared government, or how the national media has conveniently forgotten to highlight the worst rains in a century for the city. But it doesn't change the fact that you are still grappling with a scary situation.

I would hate to whip out the usual cliche about a resilient people in the face of crisis, but I have nothing else to describe this city's people. It aptly describes them at the moment. Resilient in the way they have come to terms with this unprecedented deluge and topping that with a will to reach out and help wherever possible.

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Even as a blackout envelops the city and those managing with alternative power source are coming to terms with darkness on a wet Wednesday, waves of help and rescue efforts pour in from every quarter.

I am sitting in the dark with the charge on my laptop slowly petering out and all I can see on social media are posts, tweets, and messages from people opening up their doors and their hearts to those stranded. I am one of the luckier ones in this scenario living as I do on the top-most floor of a four-storey apartment in south Chennai. My neighbours on the ground floor aren't as blessed, as water gushes into their houses.

There is not only the typical stagnation that any resident of the city is used to, but there is also discharge from overflowing reservoirs, resulting in water spilling onto bridges and roads. What is emerging is a montage of roads filled with water, but I am heartened to see instances of people lending a hand on the road, whether it was to pull out a biker being swept away by a current, or a man carrying a dog on his shoulder to safety.

We were not prepared for this. There is food supplies at home, but it will only last a day. Our watchman says water supply will only last for the night. Electricity has been cut off as the water levels on the roads are high and chances of wires falling into them are higher. Landline phones have long become silent and network coverage is patchy, at best.

We are unable to pick up medicines we need, but given the circumstances, we cannot expect the usual delivery from the pharmacy either. I am desperately trying to reach out to a couple of relatives who are living in low-lying areas. My aunt and her husband, who is paralysed, had to shift out of the ground floor of their house when water seeped in at one am this morning. Moving to the first floor helped only for a couple of hours, as water levels increased. Their phones are switched off and we are left wondering what happened to them.

This is where someone like my friend Deepak Kaliappan comes to the rescue.

Deepak, who works in the US, has not slept a wink in 24 hours. He had just left Chennai after his brief vacation last week and is shocked how much the city has changed since. Constantly on the phone and using Facebook, he is crowdsourcing rescue efforts and getting hot food across to stranded citizens.

He appeals to people to help out a woman in labour, a man who is trying to source an oxygen tank for his old mother and finding out the whereabouts of loved ones, including mine. He quickly finds out that Army rescue boats are evacuating children and women first from the area where my relatives reside. It doesn't alleviate my fears completely, but it assures me to a certain extent that my aunt and uncle are not alone.

A cousin of mine is to get married this Sunday. Relatives from out of town were supposed to travel. But with the airport closed, trains not running and the roads battered by the pounding rain, I wonder how this will pan out.

It's not an exaggeration when I say that I am horrified by what is happening to this city. A month ago, we were cribbing about how the rains had failed us this year. Priests in churches appealed to people to offer prayers for a good spell. But there is nothing godly about what we have had to deal with the past couple of days.

But, even as I am cut off from the rest of the world today, I sense a resounding closeness with the people outside. For, even though this city has taken a beating, I realise it takes much more to pull down its people.

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