Chennai under water: 2015 vs 2023

Over the past weekend and beyond, cyclone Michaung left a trail of destruction, similar in many ways to what had happened in the city in 2015. Ramya Kannan examines what was done right and where we slipped

December 10, 2023 01:56 pm | Updated December 11, 2023 11:42 am IST

People wading through floodwater at Sathyamoorthy Nagar, Vyasarpadi in North Chennai after heavy rain, caused by cyclone Michaung, lashed the city on December 4, 2023.

People wading through floodwater at Sathyamoorthy Nagar, Vyasarpadi in North Chennai after heavy rain, caused by cyclone Michaung, lashed the city on December 4, 2023. | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Hindsight is an excellent teacher, but as pupils, do we remember the lessons taught eight years ago? Comparisons are anathema, but sometimes they are a measure of what has been done right and what more needs to be done, to minimise damage — loss of life and property — and the sufferings of people. While extreme weather events have become more common than in the past across the world, their impact strikes harder when closer home, naturally. Only eight years ago did Chennai have a terrible northeast monsoon; several weather events in November and December set the bar low for Chennai, as extensive devastation wrecked most parts of the city. As a result, every monsoon will invoke the spirit and memories of 2015, every spell of massive rain/flooding in the city will be compared to the dark days of 2015.

We could have allowed hindsight to gain an advantage this time, with cyclone Michaung. Maybe we did, in some ways, in some parts of the city. But Michaung, too, as different as it was from the rain of 2015, affected the city in eerily similar ways.

Here are some of the things that were done right; and then there are issues that need the urgent attention of the government, a crucial oversight of issues that are traditionally left in the realm of local bodies: corporations, municipalities, and panchayats.

More accurate forecast

Primarily, the meteorological forecast was bang on and elaborate, giving an idea of the path taken by the low-pressure area and depression leading to the cyclone. Only the time that the cyclone spent over Chennai diverged from the prediction: it spent 16 hours, pounding the city with non-stop rain for 24 hours.

But it is now clear that the forecast this time did its task, allowing enough time for preparations. Whether we (the government and people) did use that opportunity to be prepared or not will fall on both sides of what we did and did not do. The government had disaster rescue teams stationed in readiness, issued a list of precautions that residents must take, prepared for health camps, and readied its shelters to accommodate homeless people.

Watch | Why was Chennai so badly flooded?

Preparing for floods

But did everyone prepare adequately? People in the south and western suburbs were left inundated for days, and had run out of water and supplies, especially milk powder for babies, even from the second day. While it was, no doubt, the duty of the government to address this demand, better preparations, particularly in areas prone to flooding, must be part of the household checklist in future. The government’s response after the floods was patchy at best. Pockets of north Chennai and the south and south-western suburbs received very little assistance, residents claimed, and were left unattended to mostly. Another sore point among people was that elected corporators and people’s representatives, besides political party workers (with notable exceptions), arrived but too late on the scene and with too less.

Reservoir discharge

The single most crucial factor which ensured that the loss of life was minimal, in comparison with the 2015 floods when several hundreds died, was early, precautionary metered water discharge from the reservoirs. In 2015, a large quantity of water discharged from Chembarambakkam literally overnight, way beyond the carrying capacity of the Adyar, coupled with simultaneous heavy rainfall, led to extensive flooding along the entire length of the river. As no adequate warning was issued to the residents, deaths and a phenomenal loss of property occurred. The precautionary measures this time ensured that there was no crisis discharge of a large quantity as in 2015 and saved lives. Evicting encroachments along the banks of the Adyar and the Cooum and relocating people were sensible measures that worked.

Core city drains

All city roads flooded after an unrelenting rain lashed for a 24-hour period and a high tide did not allow the rivers to drain the water into the sea. However, a few hours after the rain stopped on Monday night, the main roads in the core city area drained rapidly, while inner roads were inundated for longer. The Chennai Corporation’s recent labours in relaying the storm-water drain network, which had let the city down even during the rain in November 2021, helped in early resumption of life in the city areas, though not in all. They handled an extraordinary rainfall of nearly 40 cm-45 cm.

But despite the knowledge of the flooding pattern, it is puzzling that the same areas remained under water for days. Access to the southern parts of the city and the south-western suburbs was cut off. Only boats could reach the flooded zones, in north Chennai, south and south-western suburbs, including Chennai’s showcase Old Mahabalipuram Road, or the IT Corridor.

Unplanned city

Rampant and flagrant violations of building rules can be clearly cited as historical wrongs that continue to render the city vulnerable every monsoon. Waterbodies and channels have been built over, or filled up, in order to allow for property development. While development is a priority, we cannot afford to lose sight of, in our quest to build better lives for our people, this kind of rapacious civic expansion, which is counterproductive. Care must be taken, with the highest office in the government watching over, to ensure that plan permit violations do not slip in with someone’s palm being greased, and that water drains and canals are left alone. The government will do well to reassess the proposal to build an airport at Parandur on acres of wetland in the light of the flooding during cyclone Michaung.

Social media access

Among the things the State got right this time was proper social media monitoring for distress calls and calibrated response. Industries Minister T.R.B. Rajaa’s war room was by far the best way to access help and assistance when marooned. Besides the monitoring of the calls for help, volunteers and teams were despatched to the affected areas for assistance. The government, a little belatedly, set up a co-ordination team to monitor the work of volunteers and ensure resources are well spread out and there is no duplication or misses.

Power and connectivity

The flip side was that it was accessible if one had access to the Internet. Often, and in many areas, people had very little connectivity, if any, and no power to charge devices. Power supply, which was cut off as a precautionary measure when the rain began, did not resume in parts of north Chennai and the suburbs until Thursday or Friday evening. Despite reports of funds being allocated to upgrade the electricity infrastructure, it was disappointing that when it came to a crisis, it was the first utility to go under. Internet connectivity was similarly a casualty, and took days to be restored. Communication therefore was a casualty. The widely publicised toll lines could not be reached either.

Volunteer fatigue

What is also clear is that in contrast to 2015, the initial volunteer response to pleas for relief was sluggish. This could be due to compassion fatigue, as the same teams have been working on one thing after another, right through the years of the COVID-19 pandemic, says Vaishnavi Jayakumar, who coordinated relief work in Chennai in 2015 and now. Also, she says that in 2015, the government had solicited help from NGOs, with the tasks of the State and the volunteers demarcated. On the plus side, fewer volunteers lost their lives in rescue and relief this time. Volunteers were being turned away from highly inundated areas, which were then attended to by trained disaster management workers.

Milk crisis

The non-availability of milk was definitely a matter of concern. The flooding of the Aavin manufacturing plant at Ambattur and the subsequent disruption of supply could have been easily avoided with adequate preparations.

Hopefully, the lessons from Michaung will be taken in earnest by the authorities and people. The State needs to ensure that a template of best practices in disaster mitigation is created and replicated whenever necessary. For, the next crisis, it seems, is only one spell of heavy rain away.

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