The year 1943 lives on in public memory for the floods that ravaged Madras and for how the crisis brought the residents together
In October 1943, Madras experienced its worst floods in living memory. An unrelenting downpour that lasted around six days led to breaches in tanks and canals and swollen lakes and rivers, and rendered thousands homeless and resulted in loss of lives and property.
The Cooum broke its embankments and gushed forth into alarming streams that plunged many areas — including Kilpauk, Purasaiwalkam, Perambur, Mount Road, Egmore, Chindatripet and Pudupet — into complete disarray. The Adyar river also swelled and overflowed, but the damage was restricted to the areas in its vicinity.
Reports of the flood havoc read like the script of a horror movie. When the flood was at its height, a few residents of Medavakkam — near the Institute of Mental Health, Ayanavaram — were swept away. People living in nearby Lock Cheri were harboured in the buildings of the Institute. In Perambur and surrounding areas, residents witnessed the hair-raising spectacle of bodies drifting around in the waters. In Purasaiwalkam, a family of nine was wiped out as the walls of their house caved in — this incident caused considerable panic in the area.
To rescue people stranded in the floods, catamarans and improvised floats were employed. Their station coming under six feet of water, the policemen of Vyasarpadi rowed a boat and rescued families in the locality. The horses of the Mounted Police, lodged in Pudupet, were shifted to a safe area. Rescue workers tried their best to save cattle. Huge numbers of dead cows, bulls and goats being washed down the rivers proved they were only partially successful in this mission.
Furniture and household items collected in the banks of the rivers, giving a picture of the devastation. Damage in areas west of the Mambalam railway station was immense. In these suburbs, hay stacks and harvests went with the tide of the rushing waters.
Slum dwellers around Madras and residents of working class localities — which included Choolai, Perambur, Kosapet, Kondithope and Chintadripet — bore the brunt of the flood fury. Their huts and tenements destroyed, they were sheltered in Corporation schools and Government buildings and marriage halls. The Ripon Buildings overflowed with residents of Pudupet and Chintadripet. Residents of worst-hit neighbourhoods moved to the places — such as Mylapore, George Town, Royapuram and parts of Triplicane — where the floods did not wreak much havoc.
The authorities repaired the breaches in the tanks and in the embankments of other water bodies as quickly as possible, but wartime regulations prevented them from immediately carrying out permanent solutions. To give just one instance, the Government decided to wait for the War to end before fortifying Buckingham Canal's west flood bank — from Ennore Lock to Thiruvottiyur Bridge — and creating a new flood bank from the Bridge to Kudiralkottalam Nattam. The crisis brought people together. Citizens formed groups that fed the homeless. The Mayor's Flood Relief Fund, instituted in the 1930s, was resurrected and opened for donations. The Council of the Madras Corporation transferred Rs. 50,000 from the general funds to this Fund. People from all walks of life pitched in.
Various political groups buried their differences and worked in partnership — a notable effort was the Humanitarian Service Corps, which vowed to help Madras return to normality and also the people from other areas that were plunged in distress — such as Bengal which was then being ravaged by a food crisis.
V. Guruswami, Naturalist:
It was a holiday and we — my brother Kalyanasundaram, our cousin Swaminathan and I — decided to spend the day at the house of our brother-in-law at the Egmore Railway Quarters. We left Triplicane and reached Egmore around 9 a.m. It was raining heavily, but we had no idea that in the evening, we would trudge back home in waters that would threaten to swallow us.
As the flood waters rose dramatically, residents of the quarters abandoned their houses and took shelter in the wagons stationed in the Railway yard. There was no let-up in the rain and we decided to brave it out and return home on foot. It turned out to be a hare-brained decision, because the Gandhi-Irwin Road was under water that was waist-high for a tall adult. Whenever a heavy motor vehicle trundled past, the waters would rush in waves towards us. Every time this happened, our cousin Swaminathan, short and stout, was almost totally submerged. A group of friendly day-wage workers — who walked by our side — lifted him to safety each time.
When we had crossed the worst-hit section, these men hailed a hand-pulled rickshaw for us. As we returned to our house in Triplicane, we expected a sound thrashing from our uncle Narayanaswamy, who was a professor at Presidency College. Contrary to expectations, he was much relived and happy to see us. It was an unusual day — which registered over 20 inches of rainfall in 24 hours.
But it was just the beginning of a catastrophic week.
We were hit by the aftermath of the 1943 Madras floods. We were visiting the city at that time. The rains had stopped and the waters had subsided considerably. However, people still suffered from the travails of a city struggling towards rebirth. Mount Road was still under two feet of water. From Secunderabad, we had taken a couple of trains to reach Central Station. We decided to go to Saidapet by a suburban train. We learnt that the train would not go beyond the Mambalam railway station due to partial damage to the rail bridge on the way to the Saidapet Railway Station.
As night had descended on us, we stayed at a relative's house in Mambalam and took a jutka the following morning and went to Saidapet. After reaching our destination, I inspected the damage to the rail bridge. Post-flood damage control measures were delayed due to the ongoing War. Movement was restricted. It was sometime before Madras returned to being its old self.