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From ground zero: ‘Disconnected, but luckier than many Chennaiites’

We are so used to the modern day “necessities” - mobile phone, internet connectivity, 24x7 television news and lifts - that a power outage is something that one cannot imagine coping with.

india Updated: Dec 05, 2015 11:58 IST
KV Lakshmana
People receive food packets distributed by navy personnel in Chennai.
People receive food packets distributed by navy personnel in Chennai.(AP Photo)

We are so used to the modern day “necessities” - mobile phone, internet connectivity, 24x7 television news and lifts - that a power outage is something that one cannot imagine coping with. And those are exactly what we have been forced to live without after the power supply went for a toss amid relentless rains in Chennai.

We were safe in our four-storied apartment buidling in Gandhi Nagar in Adyar as long as we were inside the house. We were simply lucky that our kitchen was well stocked with essentials and a spare LPG cylinder. Of course, there were minor issues with shortages of milk, vegetables, bread and drinking water and higher prices to pay as supplies were severely hit.

But it was not as bad as it was for thousands of unfortunate people in different parts of the city like the suburbs of Velachery and Pourur. They were among the worst hit areas and which are still under waist-deep water with residents cut-off from rest of the city in darkness even after the rains stopped for one and a half days.

What power outages, running out of diesel and submerged generator rooms mean was horrifically evident after 14 people died in the ICU of a specialty hospital in Chennai for the lack of oxygen.

Read: Row breaks out after 14 die in Chennai hospital due to power failure

Children, elderly people and the ill and infirm had to do without basic essentials of life – milk, food and water – and we were fortunate enough to have escaped the pangs of hunger. Though danger was ever present with the Cooum river near our house in spate.

It did breach its banks near Gandhi Nagar, just about 1 km away, inundating several residential colonies in Kotturpuram. People living in flats of the Housing Board colony there had to move to the third floor after the first and second floors came under water. For drinking water or supplies, if and when they came, people sent down buckets tied to ropes and pulled them up.

People commute through a flooded street in Chennai. (REUTERS)

And we, living just a kilometre away, were driving in just ankle- to knee-deep waters in some of the lanes in our colony. The water level could have risen and we could have been rendered as helpless as our neighbours had the intensity of the rain continued for another day on Wednesday. But since then the rain has relented and on Friday we even had a bright sun shining above us till late afternoon.

Coping with a disconnected life and desperate to send reports back to Delhi, I discovered good samaritans all the way. At the Cancer Research Centre, opposite our residential complex, that was running out of diesel to run its generators, the staff allowed me to charge my laptop, phone and a power bank. Their generosity helped me overcome one of the biggest challenges I have faced in my professional life and send news to the office at a time when my mobile as well as landline phones were dead and wireless internet service was barely there.

I was in Andhra Pradesh when Cyclone Phylin came crashing and was very close to the spot where it touched the ground, but phone connectivity was not an issue. Chennai rains overwhelmed all of us.

Read: Modi announces relief of Rs 1,000 crore for rain-hit Tamil Nadu

What began as a heavy downpour just the other day, disrupted our normal lives like nothing else. Just like the cancer hospital, another clinic where I go for treatment too came to my rescue and let me to re-charge the batteries of my phones and laptop. Luckily the day before, the phone connectivity had come to life just for a few minutes and I could send my report to Delhi in time.

People wade through a flooded road in Chennai. (REUTERS)

At a time when phone networks could not even sustain local calls and no TV or internet meant literally groping in the dark, radio stations came as a blessing. They relayed information to and from thousands of listeners marooned all over the city and beat glamorized television journalism during the three days of crisis that Chennai went through, and is going through.

Just like countless nurses, paramedics in hospitals, bus drivers, train drivers, electricity department workers, radio jockeys became the source of information and did service by connecting those who needed help with an army of good Samaritans who came forward to help Chennai fight back.

In several areas power is yet to be restored, like the part of Main Road in Gandhi Nagar that is connected to a substation in Perungadi that also serves IIT Madras and Kotturpuram.

Driving through Chennai’s crowded traffic in peak hours is nothing compared to the snarls one lived through inching forward when rain waters turned roads into canals.

But life is slowly coming back to normal.

Read: Rain pause short-lived, fresh drizzle scuttles Chennai rescue efforts

Lesson from Chennai floods: India needs old cities to be less dumb