Blind to the eye of the storm

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Our dependence on technology gives us a vain sense of comfort and security. This certitude can be shattered by an extreme natural event that the very same overdependence on technology has precipitated.

Too comfortably secure to notice the storm brewing in our wake.

If there is one thing that marks the current generation of mobile phone–wielding, Internet-browsing millenials, it is this false sense of indomitability, of impermeability. It is as though we believe nothing can go wrong at all, because everything today is available to us at the click of a button. Not until a cyclonic storm brings life to a complete standstill.

 

When Cyclone Vardah ravaged Chennai on Monday, December 12, I experienced for the first time the wrath of nature in a way that my “normal” world was disrupted. And by normal I mean having phones that work, when the power is on, public transportation is smooth, and essential goods like water and milk are easily available. I had fortunately escaped the December 2015 floods in Chennai since I was in Paris attending the UN climate conference last year. By the time I had returned to the city, everything was back to normal. The muck left behind by the rising water levels had been meticulously cleared by the time I’d returned. Telephones and Internet worked. I could commute to work and back without any difficulty.

 

But December 12 and since has been different. I managed to get to work in the morning on Monday as it had just begun to rain at that time. The train services were erratic, and had stopped later, so I booked a Uber at 9 a.m. and the cabbie arrived at my doorstep. I reached office in about forty minutes, because the rain had led to some traffic snarls.

 

The cyclonic storm started picking up speed after I reached office. The rain lashed against the windows drenching the office corridors. Trees swayed dangerously. The roof of a neighbouring building got blown away partially in the winds. The cyclone hammered on the roof of The Hindu building and I could see the AC vent in my boss’s cabin, next to where I sat, slam against the ceiling repeatedly. Even as I was praying that it shouldn’t come crashing on my head, the storm was reaching its peak intensity at a whopping 120 kmph.

 

Getting back home

 

The squall seemed to die down for over an hour till about 4 p.m. A senior colleague was kind enough to offer us a ride back home after the storm passed. All phone networks were down and the city had plunged into darkness after power cuts. We started back for home at about 8 p.m. Though the cyclone had passed, the rain and the wind beat mercilessly against the windshield of the car. And we were driving — against the wind — blindly through the dark turbid road. The roads on our route home were familiar, but the picture had completely changed. Kamarajar Salai by the Marina beach was shattered; umbrella roofs of kiosks by the beach had been blown away; ornamental plants on medians lay strewn across the roads and coconut trees swayed dangerously as if they would give in any moment.

What resistance can a metal post offer when deep-rooted trees were felled, on Kamarajar Salai in Chennai. | K.V. Srinivasan

We reached Adyar, where I live, in about 30 minutes. I got dropped off a few metres ahead of the street that led to my house. Some of the billboards outside shops were still lit so I could see the road ahead. But once I reached the entrance to the street that led to my flat, it was pitch dark. And it was waterlogged with water levels touching my calves. I waded uncomfortably holding tight onto my umbrella — my only shield against the elements. I took baby steps towards my flat and was inside in a few minutes. I heaved a sigh of relief. After climbing three flights of stairs to my apartment (as the lift wouldn’t function in the absence of power) I realised my house was not only in the dark, but also swarming with mosquitoes.

 

I had never thought that getting back home could ever have been so difficult. If not for this experience, I am not sure if the absolute futility of our craze for modern gadgetry powered by electricity would have ever dawned on me. My expensive, high-end mobile phone was completely useless as I stood stranded in a street washed away by the storm in the middle of a major metropolitan city.

 

Perils of “modern living”

 

If there was one major lesson that the Cyclone Vardah drove home, it was about how dependent on electricity our very lives are in a city and how this isn’t necessarily a good thing. All the luxuries of modern life that we boast of suck energy needlessly. People who owned simpler models of mobile phones — like my mom with her basic Nokia phone, for example — had a more comfortable time than I did with my high-end Samsung Galaxy phone. Because “dumbphones” use less electricity and their batteries last longer.

Commuting on one's daily route became a challenge on the day of the cyclone and a couple days after. | M. Karunakaran

The lack of electricity also meant that none of the fancy appliances that make our life easy — washing machines, electric cookers, vacuum cleaners, etc. — work when the power is off. So, for the last three days my mother and I have been lighting candles and oil lamps at home and swatting mosquitoes with our bare hands as Good Knights and All-Outs were of no help in the face of power-cuts. The power backup had died out sooner than we expected and nothing seemed to work when we needed it the most. Because modern apartments depend on motor pumps for water supply, a prolonged power failure also meant no water supply. The taps had run out dry at home after two days of power disruption and my family had no choice but to ration the use of water and take “kaka kulis” or bathe with wet dabs.

 

If anything, the cyclone and its aftermath has been a huge lesson in the value of the old way of living — using water drawn from wells, landline phones instead of mobiles, and most importantly, in these times of demonetisation, using cash for monetary transactions, because card swiping machines and ATMs do not work when the power is gone.

 

Where climate change comes in...

 

Our craze for machines and all things powered by electricity is a major contributing factor for the climate crisis that the present world is grappling with. A research paper published by Jadavpur University has drawn clear linkages between the lifestyle patterns of individuals or households and its impact on energy consumption and carbon emissions, resulting in global warming. While a middle-income Indian household has a carbon footprint almost equal to the world average, a high-income household has a carbon footprint nearly half of that of an average U.S. citizen and nearly equal to an average UK citizen. The message is simple: the more gadgets we use, the more power we consume, the more amount of carbon we put into our atmosphere, resulting in warming.

 

“Warmer water near the ocean’s surface fuels more frequent, big hurricanes,” writes Al Gore, American politician and environmentalist, in An Inconvenient Truth, a book adapted from his famous 2006 documentary of the same name. It was a strange co-incidence that I’d ordered this book from a local library only a few days before the cyclone struck Chennai. There is data to show that average ocean temperatures have risen globally over the years, though this may not reflect immediately in local sea temperature. This is the main reason for the increasing incidence of hurricanes (in the Atlantic Ocean) and cyclones (in the Indian Ocean). Warm, moist air over the sea stirs up convection currents that intensify, causing powerful storms and showers over adjacent land.

 

 

Every time a natural calamity of such disastrous proportions strikes, a debate ensues as to whether the said disaster was due to climate change or not. Often, locally available data is insufficient to support the proposition that a certain cyclone was, in fact, precipitated by climate change as weather-related calculations are inherently complex, but if global trends are any indication, then it is possible to draw a correlation between climate change and extreme weather events such as Cyclone Vardah.

 

A cyclone of such proportions had hit Chennai after a decade, experts said soon after its occurrence. The Global Disasters Trend chart put together by the Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters in University of Louvain, Belgium has shown a sharp spike in the incidences of storms since 1970s. 

 

 

 

A few days after the destruction wrought by Cyclone Vardah is repaired, life in Chennai will limp back to normal, and with that our complacency, fed by the comforts of our modern gadgetry will return too. Many of us simply fail to see the connection between how our excessive consumption of energy as a result of our “modern way of living” has contributed to global warming. It is this blinkered approach perhaps that has led to the smug denial of climate change amongst many of us. But the smugness can last only till we find ourselves in the eye of a storm again.

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