With my first dispatch from the Chennai disaster zone, I focused on the relatively minor dislocations caused by flooding and power outages in our neighbourhood. The pictures below show repair work (agonizingly slow) on a street near us where floodwaters mixed with raw sewage.
Media stories describe how city administrators are responsible for the rampant and unplanned development that resulted in the nightmare. And with regard to emergency response, our local paper declares, “As the Chennai floods showed, Indian cities are barely capable of dealing with emergencies at any scale, let alone disasters.”
When Bev returned to work at Customer Analytics, she learned that at least four members of the staff lost everything in the catastrophe. I interviewed one of her colleagues for this account. (Except for his picture, the accompanying photos were taken by Rahul.)
Rahul Siddharth and his wife Smritee moved from Bengaluru to Chennai about eight months ago. His father and mother, Siddhartha and Bhuvana, arrived in the last week of October, relocating from Madison, Wisconsin after his dad retired.
The extended family—including two birds and two dogs, a Rottweiler–Boxer cross, and a Labrador—shared a rented ground-story house (one floor only). It is located in Manapakkam, a neighborhood not far from the Customer Analytics offices. (Their home is near the MIOT hospital where 18 patients on respirators died when the main and then backup power was lost.)
On December 1, at about 10:30 PM, Rahul took his umbrella and went for a walk in the rain. There was no electrical power in the neighbourhood, but no flooding. He returned to his house and went to bed. At around 1:00 in the morning, his father wakes him and says neighbours with flashlights are talking outside. He asks Rahul to find out what’s happening.
I went out and my car tires were under water. So I thought it’s time to get our documents, certificates and other important papers and valuables and get out of there. But it took us about 45 minutes to collect everything, and by that time the bonnet (hood) was under water. We were stuck. With the dogs and birds, we can’t go anywhere on foot.
The family and menagerie go to the terrace (roof). Fortunately, the owner of the house had built a small toilet on the terrace, where Rahul stowed the bags and supplies. He had also retrieved a tent from the rising water inside the house, and rigged it up as a tarp.
The first night was the scariest. It was raining hard; we’re holding umbrellas, the four of us—my mom, my dad, my wife and me. The dogs were under the tent.
We were all very frightened because the water just kept rising. For a while I could see my car, then it disappeared under the water. And there was only about a foot between the water and where we were standing. For four or five hours that night I just stood staring at the water, hoping it wouldn’t come up. If that happened, then God save us.
I can swim, but my mom and wife can’t. Dad is an OK swimmer, but not great. And although I can swim it would be precarious. The current was strong and there are walls and telephone and electric poles, and you don’t know what you’ll hit, or what part of your body you’re going to break.
So we just stood there all night, waiting for the sun to come up. Thankfully, at some point the water stopped rising, and we had survived.
In the morning they could see their neighbours on the upper floors of their houses. Rahul’s family stayed where they were on the terrace and waited all day for rescue, but none came.
The night before, I had made calls to everybody I could think of, including my brother in Mumbai—he’s a lawyer on the Mumbai High Court. I called him and asked him to reach out to everybody possible. To my amazement I got a call from Australia—I think it was a call centre—and they were apparently organizing relief activities. They said ‘Hang in there, help is going to come.’ That was on the first night. But help never arrived in the four days we were stranded.
In the late afternoon a neighbour shouted to them, asking if they had eaten anything. They told him they their last meal was the night before. He replied that he had only two packets of biscuits (cookies), but he would give them one. He threw the packet to them and the four shared it. They were thankful that they had the presence of mind to bring food for the dogs, but had forgotten food for themselves.
At about 5:00 in the afternoon a small boat appeared. It was not from a neighbour, but possibly a fisherman doing search and rescue. I think it was a two-man boat, but it already had four guys in it. It was fiberglass or something and was very unsteady when you stood in it.
But by that time we had decided we were going to send my mom and my wife to the neighbour’s house. Before the flood we didn’t really know the family, but they readily agreed to take Smritee and Bhuvana in.
Somehow we got my wife and mom into the little boat and it took them about 10 metres across what used to be the road. They climbed into a window on the second floor of the house opposite ours. Mom found it very difficult.
Rahul and his father stayed on the terrace, along with the dogs and birds. Neighbours helped Smritee and Bhuvana string a rope to a second house and from there to Rahul on the terrace. In this way food could be delivered in plastic bags. Thus, one house was actually feeding people in three houses. That evening Rahul and his dad received their first hot meal in two days; cooked rice with sambar gravy. They shared some with the birds.
The second night it rained hard. Both Rahul and Siddharth were exhausted, but every time they dozed off, the rain would awaken them. This continued all night, and they stayed wet.
When it rained my dad and I would each hold a dog and we would huddle under the tent. During the night I remember a half hour when it stopped raining. The stars were out and I could see Orion. That was really nice, really pleasing.
On the third morning it was obvious that Siddhartha was suffering. He has a bad knee and hip, and he agreed with Rahul that he should join his wife at the neighbour’s house. The water had begun to recede and was only chest deep, allowing him to wade across the street. The dogs were too frightened to go into the water, so Rahul stayed with them on the terrace.
At about noon Rahul ate pongal (rice dish) that had arrived in a plastic bag. “One of the best pongal’s I have ever eaten,” he declared. Smritee came over to join him later that evening. Earlier, Rahul had retrieved a foldable cot from the house, thinking they might get some sleep; he had barely slept in two days. He set up the cot under the tent before she arrived.
My wife told me to sleep and she would stay up for a bit. But she also fell asleep and it suddenly started raining. My big dog, the Rottweiler, got really scared by the lightening and thunder, so he just pushed my wife off the cot and slept next to me.
I should also mention that on the third night had no drinking water. So we covered a water bottle with a kerchief and caught rainwater. We had that to drink.
On the fourth day most of the water had receded, so Rahul’s parents decided to go to a cousin’s house and see if accommodations could be organized for the family for the next few days. They left at about 8:00 in the morning, but Rahul heard nothing from them during the day.
Worried, he set out on foot hoping to find some means of contacting them. But phones were not working. He also discovered that prices had suddenly skyrocketed for essentials. A 2-litre bottle of water was being sold at five times its usual price. The same for biscuits.
I had about 100 bucks (slang for rupees) in my pocket, and of course, none of the ATMs were working. So I bought a packet of biscuits and saved my last 50 bucks. I didn’t know if my parents were going to come back that day, and I wanted to save that 50 bucks in case I needed it for the next day, so I would at least have something to eat.
Happily, at 5:00 PM his parents returned and announced that it was all set up, they can take the dogs and stay at the cousin’s house. So they all bundle into two auto rickshaws—four people, two dogs and two birds—and leave their flooded home behind.
Two days later Rahul and his wife go back to collect salvageable clothes. They find that the water had reached the ceiling. Strewn about are dead snakes, fish and frogs, and spoiled food. And everywhere is the stench of raw sewage. But most painfully, their personal effects are gone or ruined—photographs, letters and keepsakes, their history and their memories. They aren’t sure if they will move back into the house.
I don’t know what makes more sense financially, to move back in or get a new place. I’ve checked out a few houses for rent but the rates in Chennai have gone up so much in the last week…. If you look for a first-floor house the landlord says it is safe from flooding and is charging more for it. Meanwhile, all of the ground-floor houses are ruined, and you can’t even check them out.
Are they comfortable moving back into a house on the ground floor?
Well, I’m alright, but my wife is scared. She wants to leave the city. But it’s not only about the rains. It’s about the government not taking the right action. They are the people to be blamed for this. If they had sent out SMS alerts at the time they opened the dam, a lot of lives could have been saved. [The Chembarambakkam reservoir is about two hours from the city. The sluice gates were opened to prevent overflowing of the reservoir. Citizens along the Adyar River received no warning.] Politicians send out SMS messages to the whole country, but this could have saved lives.
There’s going to be an election in March for the state government, but I’m sure they’re going to turn it around some time in January when Pongal (annual festival) comes, and the government I’m sure will distribute money and food and turn them around like nothing ever happened.
The time I cried was when I went back to the house. A truck was on the street and something was being distributed. I thought it would be food. People were running up to the truck, a big crowd gathered, maybe 100 people. The back door of the truck was closed and a guy was pushing people away. Then I saw he was distributing lungis (a sarong worn by men in hot weather). Fucking lungis! When we need food and shelter! Excuse me …. [Rahul sobs.].
Coda: Rahul has found a two-story house with three bedrooms. He and his family have begun to rebuild their lives. Good luck to them.