Tag Archives: Chennai

Lord willing and the creek don’t rise: Dispatch from the Disaster Zone II

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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.

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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.

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Rahul Siddharth

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.

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Tops of cars visible from the terrace.

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.

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Bhuvana standing next to tent / 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.

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The water finally stopped rising.

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.

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Siddhartha contemplates the murky water.

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.

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Smritee and dog watch the arrival of a small boat.

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.

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Debris left by the receding water.

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.

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Possessions afloat on the rising water.

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.

A Walk in the Neighbourhood

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A Walk in the Neighbourhood

A short photo essay.

Mannequins

Mannequins

Rooftop Deck

Rooftop Deck

Ascetic

Ascetic

Bus Shelter + Seating

Bus Shelter + Seating

Sleeping it Off

Sleeping it Off

Water Truck Shower

Water Truck Shower

Old and New Chennai

Chennai Old and New

Bank Front Door

Bank Front Door (Yes, We’re Open!)

Protected Dog

Protected Dog

Private Shrine

Private Shrine (Bricks with Dresses)

Smilin' Buddha

Smilin’ Buddha

No Wasted Space

No Wasted Space

Elaborate Gate + Dog

Elaborate Gate + Dog

Doctor's Office Clock

Doctor’s Office Clock (We Gamble With Your Health)

Highrise Construction

Highrise Construction

Construction Labourer

Construction Labourer

Mystery Structure in Park

Mystery Structure in Park (closed to public)

Walkability Chennai

Walkability Chennai

No Junk Just Art

No Junk, Just Art

Three-storey Flats

Three-storey Flats

"Arise and Shine"

“Arise ‘n Shine”

Taking it Easy

Taking it Easy

Public Urinal

Public Urinal

Frugal India

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India is frugal, and in many ways the country offers profound lessons in sustainability.

Packaging waste is a fraction of that in North America, and the intensity of use of so many things is mind-boggling. Two-wheelers have as many as five riders, people are crammed into tiny dwellings, and the service life of stuff is decades beyond the quickly obsolete and disposable goods in the developed world.

The family van.

The family van.

Five on a Bike

Five on a bike.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At a glance this can seem shabby and perhaps reminiscent of those grim photos of soup lines from the first great depression. But people are generally cheerful and without any apparent sense of deprivation (slum and street dwellers the obvious exceptions). Moreover, so much of the recycling, extended life, reuse, and reduced consumption makes perfect sense. In other words, sustainable.

It doesn’t take long to get used to such things as bringing six eggs home from the store in a cone made from yesterday’s newspaper, or eating with your fingers from a banana leaf “plate.”

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Take Out Parcel 1

Take out parcel, with sauce.

 

Eggs

Leaf PlateHowever it does take a bit longer to get the hang of using a communal water cup, from which you pour water into your mouth without touching the rim with your lips. I still manage to pour water down my shirt most times.

Water Can and Cup

And no toilet paper.No Toilet Paper

Lots of things are old but still functional and in daily use. Legs for instance. People of all ages still walk. Often together. Talking to each other. How old fashioned is that?

Bicycles are another ubiquitous example.

Bicycle repair shop

Bike repair shop.

Old Bike

Still Operating

 

The average living space for Indians a mere 24.2m2 (in the U.S. its 221.m2).  Retail space can be tiny but overheads are low when your shop is the sidewalk.  No shop is too small, although the weather can be a determining factor about hours of business.

 

Bike Shop

Motorcycle repair shop and showroom.

Sidewalk Veg Market

Sidewalk Tailor

Sidewalk tailor.

 

 

 

 

Outdoor Restaurant

Restaurant (standing room only)

 

Sole proprietor.

Sole proprietorship.

When space is precious, shops can get a bit crowded.

Single occupancy vehicles are the exception rather than the rule. I once counted 11 in one car. Last week four adults were squeezed into the back seat of a sub-compact. Fortunately, most south Indians have a sense of humour. “We thought you needed to experience an Indian bus,” someone quipped.

Store shelves are so crammed with stuff that it can take weeks to begin to understand the full scope of what is on offer. One quickly learns that the best thing to do is simply ask, and from somewhere, who knows where, what you want will appear.

Crowded Store

Our local grocery / department store. Three’s a crowd.

Sharing the paper.

Sharing the paper.

A greeting and smile every day

A greeting and a smile every day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conspiracy Revealed!

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A recent news story caught my eye. A subway train in Moscow derailed, killing at least 20 and injuring more than 100 others.

The N.Y. Times story on the tragedy offered the following tiny insight into Russian culture:

Also touching a nerve for the Russians was the suggestion of a cavalier attitude about safety, a fatalistic view — maybe that wire will hold, or maybe it won’t — that runs as deep in this country’s culture, and which many Russians recognize all too well in themselves. On the streets of the Russian capital, one of the largest cities in Europe, manholes go uncovered, icicles plummet on pedestrians in winter, and giant sinkholes caused by faulty water pipe installation open from time to time, swallowing cars and people alike.

The last sentence reads like a hyperbolic movie marquee. I have a vision of scriptwriters working feverishly to draft horror movies based on the day-to-day hazards in that deceptively benign metropolis.

I invite those eager scriptwriters to turn their attention to India, where urban dangers are plentiful. And more to the point, I am convinced of a diabolical conspiracy at work.

Danger 440 Volts

Only 11,000 Volts. Don't leave children unattended.

Only 11,000 Volts. Don’t leave children unattended.

Cement walls regularly “spontaneously and mysteriously” topple over, often killing sleeping construction workers. Occasionally an entire building collapses, such as the one two weeks ago that killed scores of laborers and their families. It can’t all possibly be coincidence.

Buses, with what appears to be malice aforethought, quite regularly run over embarking and disembarking riders, pedestrians and motorcyclists. The bus drivers are as mystified as the rest of us.

One evening while on a quiet stroll in the neighborhood, we heard the ‘thunk’ of bricks landing in a heap close to a building under construction. A worker was casually tossing them from the roof three stories above. Fortunately, we weren’t close enough to the building to be in danger (we were at least one foot distant), but the bricks were missing a calm cow by inches. A calm, holy cow, as I don’t have to remind you. God help the worker if the beast was conked.

Electricity in many forms is an especially pervasive menace. Wires are everywhere, ready to trip, garrote or fry the heedless pedestrian. The sheer number of them and their obvious intentional placement for jeopardy are clear proof of evil machinations.

The ubiquitous junction boxes are obviously in sinister league with each other, and perhaps under the direction of …who?

The Creature From The Black Lagoon is a child’s toy compared to such horrors.

Innocent looking coil ready to fling victim into hole.

Innocent looking coil ready to fling victim into hole.

Loitering with intent.

Loitering with intent.

Coincidence? Impossible.

Coincidence? Impossible.

Handle bare wires with care.

Handle bare wires with care.

Meeting of the cabal, electrical and cement division.

Meeting of the cabal, electrical and cement division.

Drunk and disorderly, but still deadly.

Drunk and disorderly, but still deadly.

Treachery is afoot.

Treachery is afoot.

Don't trip.

Don’t trip.

Neck height not a coincidence!

Neck height not a coincidence!

8' deep hole. Note the sturdy barriers. Junction box lurks beyond lane.

8′ deep hole. Note the sturdy barriers. Junction box lurks beyond lane.