Heroes of flood relief effort reflect on hard learnt lessons

Saving the day:Initiatives by independent groups of residents went a long way in helping people survive the catastrophe in December 2015. —File Photo

Saving the day:Initiatives by independent groups of residents went a long way in helping people survive the catastrophe in December 2015. —File Photo  

For many of the volunteers who threw themselves into the work of saving fellow residents, the deluge spurred some deep thinking on civic issues

The floods of 2015 were undoubtedly a disaster but perhaps the only silver lining in those dark days was the resilience and large-heartedness of Chennaiites, who opened their doors and their hearts for their fellow residents.

From offering space to the flood-hit and collating information to distributing relief material to stranded residents, the huge crowd of volunteers who spent days together hard at work were true heroes.

Their efforts began early. Within a few hours of the rain on the midnight of December 1, RJ Balaji and actor Siddharth, who later went on to form Chennai Micro, posted on social media that they had vehicles patrolling the streets to help people who were stranded in the rain.

Many other Good Samaritans were on similar endeavours in their localities. As dawn broke, it became clear that a Herculean effort, and many volunteers, would be necessary to bring relief to the battered city.

Tapping experience

During the course of their work, the volunteers learnt many a lesson, some of them the hard way. And, once the crisis ended and life returned to normal, at least a few tried to use their experiences to ensure the city is prepared.

“When most of us started out, we did not know whom to reach out to and where to source relief material from. With more volunteers joining in, we slowly built a network of volunteers and sourceWs we could rely on,” recalled Ayyappan Subramanian, the founder of Sri Arunodayam Charitable Trust, who was actively involved in Chennai Rain Relief 2015, a group started by the Bhumika Trust which carried out large-scale relief operations across the city.

Many volunteers noted that over time, the importance of centralised efforts helmed by the government so as to avoid duplication became quite evident.

A volunteer who was involved in the relief work recalled how a few rescue camps in central Chennai were frequented by many groups leading to food wastage, while a few other areas remained neglected.

In the suburbs, many ward councillors themselves pitched in and worked with the volunteer groups as well.

“We realised that it is important to work with the local leaders and the people there instead of carrying out relief work without assessing the situation. When working in parts of north Chennai, Red Hills and Periyapalayam, which remained cut off for many days, we realised the need for centralised volunteering efforts,” said Mr. Ayyappan.

The Chennai Rain Relief 2015 team has been working towards building up a database of volunteers and contacts which it is planning to hand over to the Chennai Corporation so that they can be engaged in relief work during a disaster.

Following the floods, safety services providers such as Survival Instincts in Chennai conducted workshops focussing on rescue training and emergency response which saw a huge rush of people signing up to familiarise themselves with simple rescue methods and basic first aid.

Role of social media

Spreadsheets with information about areas that had been cut off, areas that were safe, stocks of medicines, rescue shelters, volunteers and donors, which were circulated on social media by online groups such as, played a huge role in spreading information about rescue and relief efforts.

“I was stuck for the most part of the floods inside my house since my street was flooded with over five feet of water, but I somehow continued to have access to the internet and was able to pitch in to help many groups get word out on social media,” said N. Gayathri, a research scholar from the city. She wasn’t alone and was joined by several people, some even from abroad who kept a tab on the requests for rescue and relief being put up online and helped direct volunteers towards the same.

“The pages of many online communities which functioned during the floods still exist and though they aren’t active now, it will be the easiest way to reach out to a large number of people in case of an emergency,” said N. Darshana, a student from the city.

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