Chennai rains: City’s trusty volunteers have braved multiple crises, from 2015 to 2021

Armed with the expertise garnered from their relief work during the pandemic, Chennai’s online and on-ground volunteers are back in action as the city witnesses heavy spells of rain

Updated - November 18, 2021 05:07 pm IST

Published - November 10, 2021 04:36 pm IST - Chennai

CHENNAI,TAMIL NADU,08/11/2021: Greater Chennai Corporation places boats in some locations in Velachery and Adambakkam as a precautionary measure incase there are further rains and flooding and residents need to be rescued on Monday.Photo: Velankanni Raj B/The Hindu

CHENNAI,TAMIL NADU,08/11/2021: Greater Chennai Corporation places boats in some locations in Velachery and Adambakkam as a precautionary measure incase there are further rains and flooding and residents need to be rescued on Monday.Photo: Velankanni Raj B/The Hindu

There are those who cook, those who crunch numbers, and those who comfort the distressed. In a crisis, a city needs all kinds of helpers.

Earlier this year, we saw them behind screens and on the ground — distributing food, collating information, relaying leads, finding beds and oxygen cylinders, and thus saving lives — in the thick of the brutal second wave of COVID-19 in Chennai, braving personal losses and mental health challenges. Now, as the city wades through heavy rains, they are on the job again, with all systems in place. Chennai’s volunteers are adapting through crises, armed with an expertise that can only come from experience.

It was only earlier this week that Instagram and Twitter handle @covid19_chennai changed its name to @newsofchennai, thereby shifting its focus to critical situations in the city, not just COVID-19. When Shyam Sundar, a Chennai-based volunteer started the account in March 2020, he did not anticipate this growth in relevance. In fact, he had hoped the pages would no longer be required.

Now at over 17,000 followers just on Instagram, the account is one of the go-to repositories for rain-related information in Chennai. The Greater Chennai Corporation, Southern Railways, Divisional Railway Manager (DRM) Chennai, Tamil Nadu Electric Board (TNEB) and Tamil Nadu Disaster Management Authority are all posting updates online, and are Shyam’s primary sources. Others are Government press releases, and Twitter handles of journalists and news media.

A network of sources built during the pandemic also remains helpful for Shyam, who often receives information directly. “Now, considering the situation, I have only been sharing posters with numbers, helplines and such information, which is what people are looking for,” adds Shyam, who mostly works single handedly. But help from friends pours in, when needed. That said, he is clear about his intentions with the pages. “We don’t want to be a replacement forregular media outlets, and hope to be available only on social media, and probably a website [in the near future] where all the information is gathered.”

As someone who helped at a volunteer-led relief centre in Nungambakkam during the 2015 floods, physically helping out hundreds of people for six weeks, Chennai Volunteers founder Rinku Mecheri says she misses on-ground volunteering. “There was a time when you could take your car, put in supplies and just drive to the place that needs help. After COVID, we can’t do much of that.”

So this time, there are just Rinku and a few people on the ground, mainly those who are double vaccinated. Everyone else is working virtually — manning phones and computers, the way they had learnt to do during the second wave of COVID-19. She says, “Those months taught everyone how to use technology. In a way, this is good, because now most NGOs and those on the periphery know how to handle a Google Doc and spreadsheets. It is easier to coordinate, so we need fewer people on the ground.”

She explains how helping during a pandemic is very different from something like a flood. “What happened in 2015 was people-oriented — we needed folk to come forth and donate bread, medicines, blankets, tarpaulin. What happened during the pandemic was more skill-based. We needed people who could sit at home and crunch data.”

An efficient medium

What stays constant is the fact that networks now get activated very quickly. “Certain people always hop to, and learn to adapt — like the 250 Chennai Volunteers who undertook training for the GCC COVID contact tracing and post-COVID follow-up telecalling project, from ICMR doctors, and helped guide potential COVID patients over the phone. “There are also steady points of contact and credible partners for specific needs: such as NGOs like Bhoomika Trust for provision kits, and some of our volunteers who are in the pharmaceutical industry, for medical supplies,” says Rinku.

The network that Floran Jayraj, a 28-year-old CSR executive relies on, was created during his relief efforts during the 2015 floods, as well as during the second wave. Today, he is one among 90 volunteers in the city who makes up the informal, voluntary Chennai Disaster Relief Team. “We have divided ourselves by zone, and are in touch with Chennai Corporation officials. As lay citizens, we can provide supplies but cannot be directly involved in rescue and evacuation work [for lack of safety training], so we just relay information,” says Floran.

Information is something these citizens — students, NGO workers and IT professionals — are adept at handling, after their COVID work earlier this year. “Back then, we called ourselves Chennai COVID Warriors. We would update an online database of available hospital beds, medicine and oxygen cylinders,” he adds. That was just the online aspect of their work. On the real ground, They would also ferry food made by NGOs to patients in isolation.

“Many of the NGOs who were in touch with us back then, are in touch with us again,” adds Floran. These include not only those willing to help, but also those who need help. For instance, in the current emergency, Floran talks of SIP Memorial Trust’s home for HIV-positive children in Korattur, whose residents needed evacuation. “It is home to about 35 to 40 little girls. Someone from the home got in touch with me, saying they are stranded due to rain and need evacuation. I asked them for photos and tweeted, tagging the Chief Minister’s Office and Greater Chennai Corporation,” says Floran, “GCC reached the site in an hour. By that night, an alternative shelter had been arranged. We are also building a database with unique request IDs for food, medicine, torchlight, but the most requests we can see is for blankets.”

Blankets are also highlighted by Rinku. “It is cold, and blankets are taking much longer to dry. So we are trying to arrange for as many as we can,” she says.

While everyone, from founders of NGOs to student volunteers with minimal experience, are willing to step out and lend a hand, Rinku points out: “People have an innate need to help, whenever disaster strikes. If at that point, you can create a platform for them to come and be part of a larger effort, it’s very fulfilling.”

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