Rains batter Chennai; naval base near city to act as makeshift airport

  • KV Lakshmana, Hindustan Times, Chennai
  • Updated: Dec 02, 2015 23:00 IST
Patients and their care-takers being shifted to safe place from a flooded hospital after heavy rains in Chennai on Tuesday. (PTI)

The heaviest rainfall in a century brought India’s fourth most populous metropolis to its knees on Wednesday as widespread flooding shut down the airport and factories of top automobile companies, and stopped trains packed with passengers on submerged tracks.

The Indian Navy’s air base at Arakkonam -- 70 km west of Chennai – was readied for commercial flights to evacuate hundreds of passengers stranded at the civil airport, which has been shut till December 6.

The Navy facilitated the landing of an Air India Airbus A320 jet at the base, INS Rajali, on Wednesday evening, officials said adding that this will provide momentum to relief and rescue operations in the capital of Tamil Nadu.

People formed human chains to traverse treacherous stretches of roads many of which developed sinkholes, sought and found help on social media and dug in at some areas where the water level reached the second floor of apartment buildings.

The authorities deployed men and machine of the Army, air force and Navy for one of the biggest peacetime operations in the country to rescue thousands of people from homes and workplaces inundated by the heaviest rainfall in a century in the city of more than six million people.

“Only crows are coming and no helicopters. None of us have had any food for the past two days and there is no one who is even looking this way,” said K Srinu, a 35-year-old carpenter stranded in the heart of the city, as he waited for rescue teams to evacuate his father, a heart patient.

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It was a plight shared by many across the city as rescue teams, including personnel of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), moved from one locality to another, helping women, children and the infirm first.

Though the rain relented for the better part of Wednesday, the weatherman predicted rain for at least four more days albeit with reduced intensity in Chennai and four neighboring districts which have also been paralysed by the extreme weather.

Airlines suspended flights into Chennai’s flooded international airport, causing wider disruption to air travel. Authorities later decided to close the airport until Dec. 6.

“The biggest challenge is to find a way to clear the inundated airport and main roads,” said Anurag Gupta at the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) in New Delhi.

Passengers stranded at the airport said they did not know when they would be able to fly, or where to stay if they could not. “All of us here are getting agitated because none of the hotels nearby are vacant. Where do we go?” traveller Vinit Jain told Reuters Television.

Watch | Heavy rains paralyse Chennai, flights, train services suspended

In a limited initial relief effort, four helicopters dropped food, water and medicines, while fishing boats commandeered by the military were collecting stranded residents. A major relief effort by 5,000 soldiers was promised within 24 hours.

“The entire state machinery has collapsed. Most officials are forced to sit at home. It’s a very frustrating situation,” said a home ministry official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak on the record.

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Several trains cancelled and bus services were halted, resulting in thousands of passengers stranded at different places. Traffic too was affected very badly with vehicles having to navigate through stagnant waters that turned roads into rivulets. Potholes and craters and at places road caving in added to the motorists woes.

Stocks of major carmakers took a tumble because of the deluge in the area outside Chennai, known as India’s Detroit for its concentration of automakers. The flooding forced plants to shut for the second time in less than a month, crippling production and deliveries from the region. Ford and Nissan were among the automakers who told employees to stay home on Wednesday.

Most neighbourhoods were without electricity as power was switched off to prevent accidents.

The few shops that remained open in Chennai were virtually raided by customers, into panic buying with forecast of more rain. Many shops ran out of bread, milk and vegetables.

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Most roads were left in a damaged state, with motorists finding it hard to navigate through potholes. (HT Photo)

With power outages keeping many areas in the dark for two days at a stretch, many residents came out for essential purchases. Many ATMs were closed as there was no power and the few that did function, had long queues of people.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had spoken to chief minister J Jayalalithaa and assured full support from the Centre, met senior cabinet colleagues Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Venkaiah Naidu in Delhi to soar up emergency measures.

The National Crisis Management Committee (NCMC), headed by cabinet secretary PK Sinha, met in Delhi on Wednesday to line up resources for Tamil Nadu and neighbouring states.

(With inputs from agencies)

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