Flooded again, Chennai seeks succour amid the chaos

On Sunday, at 5am, 67-year-old VS Jayaraman, made a phone call to the T Nagar MLA, J Karunanithi, and the city’s fire and rescue department
A man uses a fridge as raft along a flooded section of Marina beach in Chennai.(AFP) PREMIUM
A man uses a fridge as raft along a flooded section of Marina beach in Chennai.(AFP)
Updated on Nov 11, 2021 06:43 AM IST
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By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

On Sunday, at 5am, 67-year-old VS Jayaraman, made a phone call to the T Nagar MLA, J Karunanithi, and the city’s fire and rescue department. His home in Chennai’s T Nagar had ankle deep water, and his furniture was floating in it. Water was everywhere, but there was not a drop to drink -- pipes and taps were all running dry. His 96-year-old mother needed to be physically lifted to an apartment on a higher floor. Submerged under the water were the apartment’s electrical boxes, and therefore no power could be turned on for fear of electrocution.

After beseeching for help for three days, with no resolution in sight, Jayaraman moved out. “We tolerated everything, but there were no options,” he said. On Tuesday, Jayaraman called a private ambulance, which waded through T Nagar’s streets that were still full of standing water, and moved to Chrompet to a relative’s home, 18km away. Water levels were lower here, and there was no power disruption.

Jayaraman’s story is one of many in T Nagar, and indeed several parts of Chennai, battered by rain over the weekend. Sunday, with 210mm, was the highest rainfall Chennai has received on a single day in the month of November since 2015. Most in T Nagar moved away for the short term, even checking in to hotels. Some parts of Chennai are still waterlogged, or without power since the weekend, but some arterial roads are relatively clear as the administration is using pumps to drain the water out.

T Nagar is the city’s famous commercial and residential hub, and also the location picked to be developed under the Union government’s Smart Cities Mission. Jayaraman has lived here since the 1980s, and has had to shift temporarily like this twice. The first time was in December 2015, when a combination of unprecedented rainfall and the sudden release of water from the Chembarambakkam lake left more than 400 dead in Tamil Nadu.

Six years later, the toll may be lower, but very little seems to have changed in terms of preparation.

While temporary work was done – real lessons have not yet been learnt, such as removing encroachments on flood plains, river basins still polluted with dumping of fly ash, silt and garbage which affect their carrying capacity, and storm water drains that are clearly failing under duress.

Four days of rain have brought Tamil Nadu to a standstill, with homes damaged, villages marooned, roads cut off, people forced to find higher ground, and a collapsing civic infrastructure. While 11 people have died across five districts, 94 cattle deaths have been reported across the state, and 950 huts damaged. Lakes and tanks in districts like Chennai, Cuddalore and Villupuram are filled up to their brims, and farm lands inundated. The government has provided food for 202,350 people since Sunday and boats have also been deployed to rescue people in Chennai and its adjoining regions.

And it is likely to get worse.


The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has issued a red alert -- the colour code meaning “take action”, the highest level of warning -- for the next two days. The Met has said that there are likely to be thunderstorms with heavy to very heavy rains, and in isolated places extremely heavy rainfall across seven districts in Tamil Nadu, including Chennai, and in Puducherry. The other six districts are Cuddalore, Villupuram, Chengalpattu, Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur and Ranipet.

Chennai received 210 mm overnight from November 6 to November 7, receiving 14.8mm, 11 mm, and 33.5 mm on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. On Wednesday, Tamil Nadu received a total of 94 mm of rainfall.

Even as the city got a brief respite from Tuesday, with 14.7mm rainfall until 5.30am on Wednesday, rain picked up after that, increasing to 23.7mm till 3.30pm. The situation continued to be grim in the coastal districts of Nagapattinam and Karaikal, which experienced 245mm and 272mm rainfall respectively in the intervening night between November 9 and 10.

The Regional Meteorological Centre in a statement said that under the influence of the cyclonic circulation over the Bay of Bengal, a low pressure formed on Tuesday morning.

“Yesterday’s (Tuesday’s) low pressure area over southeast Bay of Bengal and its neighbourhood, organised into a well marked low pressure area over central parts of south Bay of Bengal with the associated cyclonic circulation extending up to 5.8km above mean sea level,” their updated statement on Wednesday said. “It is likely to concentrate into a depression over southwest Bay of Bengal during next 12 hours, move west–northwest wards and reach near north the Tamil Nadu coast by the early morning of 11 November.”

Thereafter, it is likely to continue to move northwestward and cross north Tamil Nadu and south Andhra Pradesh coast between Karaikal and Sriharikota around Cuddalore by the evening of 11th November.

“It is possible we will cross 20 cm of rain in the next two days,” said deputy director of Regional Meteorological Centre (RMC), V Puviarasan. Tamil Nadu receives maximum rainfall during the northeast monsoon from October to December with an average rainfall of 449 mm and 784 in Tamil Nadu and Chennai, respectively, according to RMC data. “This year the chances of receiving above-normal rainfall in November is very high,” said independent weather blogger Pradeep John. “We have received 75% of the average rainfall already and we have more low pressures forming in the coming days,” he said.


Three additional rain related deaths were reported in Tamil Nadu on Wednesday, taking the toll in just two days to eight.Ten NDRF teams are on stand-by including three in Chennai as Tamil Nadu braces for more rainfall.

“No boats are at sea now,” minister for revenue and disaster management minister KSSR Ramachandran said in Chennai, with the government on Wednesday appointing 10 IAS officers to supervise precautionary measures. About 3,154 people have been moved to a 100 relief camps operations across the state. In Chennai, 1,343 people been accommodated in 22 shelters.

“We have taken up a number of steps to prepare for more rains,” said Gagandeep Singh Bedi, commissioner, Greater Chennai Corporation. “We have put up 46 boats anticipating emergencies.” The civic body has placed motor pumps in all vulnerable spots including 33 heavy duty pumps in flood-prone areas. Medical teams are stationed in each of the 200 wards of Chennai for screening people for Covid-19, water and airborne infections. “We are preparing for the worst,” said Bedi.

With snakes entering some homes, the government has included snake catchers as part of its volunteer team working in rescue operations.


Activists and environmentalists say that installing pumps are a temporary solution, and that the city will continue to flood due to unrestrained urbanisation on floodplains and water courses, inefficient designing of storm water drains, and Chennai’s natural flat topography.

“Urban planning in Chennai should look at ways to recharge ground water through recharge wells and rain water harvesting,” said Pooja Kumar, coordinator, Coastal Resource Centre. “That’s what we need to do rather than just tackling run off where there is no space for percolation of water to the ground. They are looking at engineering solutions for a problem that requires a multidisciplinary approach.”

Raj Bhagat, senior manager, GeoAnalytics, World Resources Institute-India said that only if the new government starts now to make a disaster management plan which is scientific, the situation could improve in a 10-year period.

“Water can move (naturally) only two ways -- downstream and underground. Both are blocked. There is no audit to check if the storm water drains are designed scientifically based on rainfall data. And where is the local governance when Chennai has had no mayor and councillors for four years?” The term of the Chennai’s elected council ended in 2017 and no local body elections have followed, and thus the city has had no mayor or councillors for its 200 wards.


While the Madras high court pulled up the Chennai corporation on Tuesday, and asked if they had not learnt lessons from the 2015 floods, politicians continued to visit flood-hit areas, and the ruling DMK and the opposition AIADMK continued to spar.

For the third straight day, chief minister M K Stalin was on the ground on Wednesday visiting some of the worst-affected areas in Chennai and overseeing rescue operations from the state disaster management control room. On Tuesday, he blamed the previous AIADMK for “looting funds”, and said that he would form an enquiry commission, while former CM Edappadi Palaniswami rebutted this by saying that it was the Smart City project that had helped reduce flooding.

Responding to reporters on Wednesday, Stalin said that Palaniswami was frustrated after losing the elections.

“He is born to lie. He is frustrated that DMK is doing so well,” Stalin said. “Our job is public service. We are meeting people directly, listening to their problems and providing relief.” Stalin has also announced that Amma Canteens- the budget canteens launched by late AIADMK chief minister J Jayalalithaa for the poor-- will offer free food till the end of the rainy season.

But while the politics continues, Jayaraman waits at his relatives home in Chrompet, praying for the rains to pass. He knows it will be a while before he can return to T Nagar, and that more flooding will occur. But there is little reckoning of what state his home will be in when he does.

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    Divya Chandrababu is an award-winning political and human rights journalist based in Chennai, India. Divya is presently Assistant Editor of the Hindustan Times where she covers Tamil Nadu & Puducherry. She started her career as a broadcast journalist at NDTV-Hindu where she anchored and wrote prime time news bulletins. Later, she covered politics, development, mental health, child and disability rights for The Times of India. Divya has been a journalism fellow for several programs including the Asia Journalism Fellowship at Singapore and the KAS Media Asia- The Caravan for narrative journalism. Divya has a master's in politics and international studies from the University of Warwick, UK. As an independent journalist Divya has written for Indian and foreign publications on domestic and international affairs.

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