December 5, 2015
This piece was written on our fourth day without electricity or phone service. It was written the old fashioned way, during daylight with pen and paper. Electricity has been restored and having regained the use of the computer I am able to post the news electronically. [Note: five newspaper photos are from The Hindu.]
Monsoon rains have crippled Chennai. You are right to wonder at this because monsoons are predictable and have been visiting Chennai for many decades, centuries I suppose. True, the rains exceeded recorded totals going back 100 years, but still…. Total collapse. Electricity knocked out. Transport shut down. Phone service unavailable. Mayhem. Deaths. Drowning snakes. Blackness. And more rain.
The city has been declared an official disaster zone. Meanwhile, the Union Environment Minister blamed developing nations, linking the flooding to climate change for which India takes little if any responsibility.
Horribly, the disaster was predicted and avoidable. Warnings have been sounded for years about the inadequacy of the city’s infrastructure, especially the systems required to manage storm water. Rampant development without planning or regulation has put buildings in flood zones and on old lakebeds. River channels have been closed and built over. Slums accrete along existing rivers. And adequate drainage is absent from streets, buildings and even the Chennai International Airport, where planes sat grounded in two feet of water.
Disaster preparedness has similarly been neglected and the emergency response to this calamity has been woefully inadequate. Coordination, communications, equipment and trained personnel have all been conspicuous in their absence. Whole sections of the city appear to be officially abandoned to their fates, and must somehow manage with self-help alone. Many, many citizens have risen to the occasion, with countless examples of rescue and cooperative assistance.
Tragically, no help was available for 18 patients in a hospital that lost electrical power and its emergency generators flooded. The patients died when their ventilator support was lost. Government officials were quick to assign blame to the hospital—anxious I am sure about their own liabilities in mismanaging preparations for the disaster—and as usual “ordered a probe.”
Luckily, we are on the third floor of our building, located in a neighbourhood with only pockets of flooded streets. The worst is a two-block section near our apartment complex.
We are dry and with the seasonally cooler temperatures (25°–29° C) we don’t need fans or air conditioning. We have suffered the relatively mild inconveniences of no electricity and periodic lack of tap water (which requires pumping to the tanks on the roof). Tap water is delivered by tanker trucks and we have been fortunate to have had continuous service. Our brief interruptions of service when the roof tanks are drained mean that we can’t rinse kitchen utensils, flush toilets, or wash our hands.
The absence of electricity is a discomforting reminder or our dependence upon it. Without it we have cold showers, no lights, no computers, no electrical appliances in the kitchen, and no fridge. The picture below is of the charging station set up in our apartment complex with diesel-generated electrical power.
Electricity has been slow to be restored because wires are underground and the local Utility is fearful of electrocutions. The state of the electrical infrastructure makes that a valid concern.
Like everyone in our building we have a battery that supplies power during the regular but intermittent outages during the day (continuously throughout the year). During prolonged blackouts however the battery will drain and we are literally in the dark. Luckily, we have LPG gas in the kitchen and can cook a meal and boil water in a pot for tea and coffee.
At five o clock in the evening we are in darkness and require candles or flashlights for navigation. Forgetting where you put something requires a laborious search in very dim light. Reading by candlelight is a vivid illustration of what our forebears endured, with wax dotting the page and eyes ruined with the strain. Gaslight must have been a joyous invention and the electric light bulb a miracle.
The parking garage in our basement flooded and the cars are now parked on the street. Ominously (dare I say imprudently?), the electrical panels for the building are also in the garage, and the rising water threatened to immerse them. This would have caused damage and prevented us from receiving electricity when it is eventually delivered from the substation. A diesel-powered pump worked around the clock, and water tankers were enlisted to suck out the floodwaters. The efforts succeeded and power was restored late in the day.
The northeast monsoons continue to bring heavy rains to the city, but the storms are becoming fewer and shorter in duration. I now wish we had brought golf umbrellas, good rain gear and rubber boots.
Yesterday we ventured out on a reconnaissance mission lasting a couple of hours. We saw people lining up at pumps or at the back of water trucks with their vessels. Uncollected garbage was abundant and rotting. Without electricity, most shops were closed. Many pharmacies were open, but operating without lights or functional cash registers. A few coffee and tea stalls were operating, and miraculously we found our favourite dosa shop functioning under generator power. We stopped in for an early lunch.
Isolated road flooding remains in our neighbourhood, which thankfully was never completely inundated. The adjoining neighbourhood to the south, which is where I took my daily walk, remains cut off with roads under 2 1/2 feet of water. I worry about the street dog I fed daily, now trapped behind a moat of fetid water.
Our brief foray was the smelliest walk we have taken in Chennai. Cow dung, dog droppings and raw sewage join rotting garbage and organic waste in a foul rain-fed soup. The mud on the edge of large puddles is especially malodorous. Walking in floodwater is dangerous for a number of reasons (snakes, electrical shock) but the most significant is risk of disease. Returning from a walk we always wash our feet thoroughly and hope for the best.
The situation in other parts of the city is much worse than ours. Flooding in many areas reached the second and third floors of buildings. Slums along the rivers were deluged. Dwellings had to be abandoned, often with no chance to recover belongings. The poor suffer the most. Food and water has been slow to arrive (if ever), and citizens, NGOs, restaurants and bakeries have stepped up. Hotels and theatres opened their doors as shelters. Public schools have also become emergency shelters.
The collapse of transportation services has had especially unfortunate consequences. People trapped at the airport or at train stations are hungry and sleep on concrete floors without emergency rations or services. Without coordination, the situation for the elderly and families with young children is grim. Those trying to leave the city on trains and buses scramble desperately for seats. Meanwhile, no trains left a main station when it was discovered that track beds had washed away.
In the weeks to come, and as the monsoon rains finally abate, the city will return to a semblance of its unique version of normalcy. Blame will be assigned far and wide by feuding political parties; studies will be launched—resulting in lengthy reports that will be printed and shelved unread; inadequate and failing infrastructure will continue to deteriorate; and municipal staff will draw their salaries. Planning for a recurrence will cross no one’s mind.
In our home we keep calm and carry on. We are not shivering and we will not starve. Bev will soon enough be back at work when they drain the neighbourhood where her office is located.
We are now much more mindful of our good fortune, as well as our vulnerabilities. And we sleep a little longer in the mornings, enjoying the absence of the noisy crows that are hunkered down somewhere trying to stay dry.