Cities & Architecture

The Deluge of Desperation

Sandhya Ravishankar recounts a story of courage and hope by Chennai’s residents who were marooned for two days in the floods.

The Adyar river as seen from the Metro train. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar

The Adyar river as seen from the Metro train. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar

When the skies opened up on December 1, a neighbour, rather cockily, smirked. “Thank God it never floods in our street!” The Gods seemed to have forgotten though that 7th Avenue in Ashok Nagar, the street where my home stands, usually stands proudly dry every monsoon. On the same evening, the state government of Tamil Nadu announced that they would release water from the overflowing Chembarambakkam reservoir, one of the city’s main sources of drinking water. Most residents around the Adyar river were unaware of this announcement. Power supply had been cut the previous night itself due to heavy rains and television news had gone unwatched.

An unprecedented 29,000 cubic feet of water per second was about to be released. This water would travel 23 kilometres through the night, making the river swell and wash over everything within a seven-kilometre radius.

Most of us in Ashok Nagar woke up to a strange sight – flooded streets with water a little more than ankle-deep. In wonderment, many like me walked across to Ashok Pillar, a landmark in the area that sits at a crossroads. Bewilderment and some amusement prevailed.

Reports and SOS calls streamed in, of stranded residents in Defence Colony, a tony neighbourhood on the banks of the river. Residents had moved to the terraces of their homes worth several crores as water rose to heights of 10 feet.

By noon on December 2, panic had kicked in. Mobile networks sputtered and died. Word began to spread of ground floor apartments being inundated. I, alongside three Good Samaritans, helped an 80-year-old lady out of her flooded flat near Ashok Pillar. One of the three men took her in, offering much needed dry shelter and food to a complete stranger.

I was contacted by a Delhi-based English news channel to chip in with live reporting on the flood situation. I was to reach Ekkattuthangal, barely 2 km away from my home, where the channel had organised a live feed. I set out on foot along flooded roads with water fast rising to waist level. Mobile connectivity died somewhere along the way. When I reached Ashok Pillar, I realised it was impossible to walk further. There was a river flowing toward me from the direction of Ekkattuthangal. A chain of human beings waded toward the column, a few belongings tied in a piece of cloth on their heads. Babies wailed wet and hungry as their parents looked desperately for refuge from the deluge. The elderly were held up and carried by young men.

I took the Metro rail from Ashok Nagar to the next station hoping to reach the live feed somehow. As the train snaked far above the ground, the scene below was almost biblical. There was water everywhere. Only rooftops of familiar shops were visible. A dead buffalo floated around where the current willed it. The Adyar river was in spate – a magnificent fury, forcing its way over the bridge near Kasi Theatre and swallowing every building on its banks. It had entered even the second floor of apartments situated on its banks.

I realised there was no way to return if I ventured into Ekkattuthangal. Retracing my path back home, I realised that water had begun streaming into our home as well. There was nothing to do but watch helplessly as sofas and appliances went underwater. Residents of slums nearby were forced out onto the main roads, their homes and possessions washed away. A few young men decided to make the most of the situation, teaching their younger neighbours how to swim on the main roads of 10th Avenue.

By nightfall, this little community which had thus far lived in anonymity, going about their busy middle class routines, had become acquaintances, even friends. To those wading through waist deep water towards a specific destination, tips were offered on which routes to take. Young boys being swept along by the current were held tight by complete strangers. Young mothers desperate to source milk for their babies found a willing assistant in some stranger on the streets. Others cooked lemon rice in their homes and handed them out in plastic packets to wet and hungry slum dwellers. We made small conversation, idle chit chat, laughed even, and marvelled at the uncontrollable fury of nature.

A sleepless night spent gazing at the river beneath brought with it crazy thoughts – surrounded by surreal views, I believed for a while that this water would never ebb.

Daylight though brought some comfort. The water began to recede steadily. More residents poured out, looking for food, milk and safe drinking water. We did our best to source these though supplies were almost nonexistent. The first carts of bananas were wheeled in by smart vendors sensing a business opportunity. Bananas were never more in demand than then.

By the evening of December 3, we were still an island, cut off from the rest of the city, but some roads were relatively dry. Relief efforts by civilians continued. The first boat and the first chopper came 30 hours after the flood. The first presence of the government, in the form of a young constable, marked his presence 36 hours later. Some mischief-mongers even spread a rumour that water would be released again from the reservoir at 6 pm that day and that the area would flood again. We had no way of verifying the information. No one could call us and we could contact no one.

My husband and his colleague, stuck at work for two nights, finally made it home on the morning of December 2. They had horrifying tales to tell – of wading through utter darkness in neck deep water, battling strong currents with no sense of direction. More Good Samaritans had taken them in, offering these two strangers a bed for the night. The next morning they were escorted back home by another stranger who waded with them for three whole hours just to show them the way. Simply out of the goodness of his heart.

We managed to get out of Ashok Nagar only after three long days. Sketchy mobile connectivity and power supply had been tentatively restored after five days. Now begin the repairs and the terrible task of cleaning up our lives. But the deluge though has also changed something in all of us. We are much more than neighbours now. We are a community.

Sandhya Ravishankar is a freelance journalist in Chennai.