On December 1 and 2, 2015, the city of Chennai (in Tamil Nadu, India) was struck by the worst rainfall on record. This resulted in massive flooding throughout the city, and everything came to a grinding halt. As someone who was at ground zero and experienced the devastation firsthand, I can give an insider’s perspective on what happened and what the situation was actually like.
I was in West Mambalam when the rains started, and that area turned out to be one of the worst-affected areas, due to the slight contour variations in the streets; I did not notice these at first, but when the roads are filled to the point of turning into rivers, this becomes a major factor in determining the direction of water flow! It also turns out that my building was in one of the lowest parts of West Mambalam, and so a lot of water ended up draining into our street and the compound of our apartment building.
This was the water level the morning after the rains had subsided. My grandfather and I were forced out of our ground-floor flat and had to seek refuge on the second floor. Fortunately the upstairs neighbors were nice enough to take care of us and provide a space to sleep on the floor, along with hot food. The car in the distance serves as a scale for the depth of the water. At this point, the water was slightly above knee level, and had barely entered our apartment.
At this point, the car is almost submerged. This dramatic increase in the height of the water was caused by the water board releasing lakewater from the Chembarambakkam and other lakes into the city, since those were also flooded. This resulted in about 4-5 feet of water entering our apartment, destroying everything inside. At the highest level, the car was was completely submerged! My grandfather’s car was parked on the street right in front of the building (it is not visible in the photos). It was also completely submerged, and due to the strong currents from the flowing water, it was carried away about 500 meters, where it eventually collided with a nearby Krishna temple!
The scariest part during this time was mainly the lack of communication and information. In a time when we are used to having the entire collective knowledge of humanity at our fingertips, being thrust into a “information black hole” is terrifying. The electricity board had cut electricity to a lot of places early on as a safety precaution. Cell phones soon began to die without any ability to recharge, and cell service soon became spotty. West Mambalam itself became a virtual black hole in cell service, and landlines soon stopped working. Inverters only last so long, and what little news we were able to see on TV’s which were still able to run thanks to the prescience of the owners was not very informative. Imagine being in a situation where you cannot even communicate with the people across the street from you, or where you don’t even know what is going on in the next street!
The following morning, the water level fortunately began to subside. I heard from other neighbors that other parts of Chennai were relatively OK; one neighbor mentioned that he and his family were planning to go to Santhome since his sister’s place there had electricity, and they left soon after. I also heard that if you were to go to the terrace and stand in a particular corner, you could get cell signal. It seems some Airtel cell towers were still functional, and so I was able to get though to my aunt and uncle in RA Puram, and my parents in the US.
At that point, fortified with a little courage after being able to talk to relatives, and armed with the knowledge that other parts of Chennai were still relatively OK, my 85-year old grandfather and I decided to walk to my aunt’s house! My aunt had informed us that she had electricity and internet in her place, which was consistent with my neighbors’ statement that Santhome had power, as my aunt’s location is close to Santhome. We were also gently suggested by the neighbors that we should think of leaving, as food and clean water were starting to run low. Other neighbors were trying to contact OLA boats so they could navigate the water and buy food supplies, but had no luck getting a phone connection. My grandfather and I therefore decided to leave while the window of opportunity presented itself; at 1 PM on the 3rd, the water in our compound came to waist level, and so we decided to leave.
We walked (or waded) through hip-deep water until we came to the Venugopalaswamy temple on our street, where my grandfather’s car had ended up. We were able to recruit some kids out of the surrounding crowd to help us push it to the side of the road to be towed once the water in the nearby streets had cleared. For those confused, due to variations in the contour of the street, my grandfather’s car was on a dry part of the street, and we moved it to another dry area. We then continued on and the water came back to waist level. Near the Madley subway, water was draining with extreme force, and there was a strong current of water from the Kasi Viswanathar temple leading to the subway. Navigating this was extremely risky, requiring very sure footing; if you were to slip and fall, you would probably drown in the subway.
This water looks relatively clean, because it is flowing, but further up:
This is all the garbage carried by the flowing water, stuck next to the bridge.
My grandfather and I walked along the subway through at least 3 feet of water the entire time until we got to Mambalam station. There we climbed the stairs and crossed the tracks and came to Ranganathan street, T. Nagar, where the water was above 6″. We continued down Ranganathan street and came to Usman road, and then came to the intersection with Burkit Rd. where the T. Nagar bus stand is. Since the water levels were lower on Burkit Rd., we decided to proceed that way, and continued down Venkatnarayana Road, until we got to Anna Salai. It was only after we crossed Anna Salai to get to Chalmiers Road that we first encountered dry land!
After proceeding about 1-1.5 km down Chalmiers Road, past the Adyar boat club road, we were able to get an auto to my aunt’s location. The roads were still extremely bad then, and instead of the usual route, we went via Greenways Road, which was fortunately not that flooded. The auto driver told us to “look inside our hearts and give what you feel is right” when the subject of fares came up. We ended up giving him Rs. 200 for a very short trip, but that was worth the mental satisfaction of finally being safe!
Since then, we have been able to observe the relief action at work. The government’s response (both state and national) has been woefully inadequate, and most of the relief work is being done by individuals, private companies, and NGO’s. I remember that when I was still stranded in West Mambalam, I was able to see Indian Army helicopters circling overhead, but they did not seem to be doing anything apart from surveillance.
Another topic that looms over all of us is the upcoming music season, and that is turning out to be a matter of debate. Some musicians feel that now is not the time for music and have cancelled their concerts for this month, and rightfully so, as it will be difficult for audiences to come. In addition, the homes of some senior musicians were also badly damaged in these catastrophic rains, dampening any mood for music. On the other hand, other musicians have voiced the opinion that as professionals, they have committed to perform and cannot back out, and they also require the income that performing concerts provides.
Yesterday, the water levels in West Mambalam finally receded and I was able to enter my apartment and survey the damage. I think these pictures speak for themselves. I ended up losing some books that I had bought for reading, including some valuable chemistry books. Ironically, I lost my copy of Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan to this Black Swan event!
The apartment smells absolutely fantastic. Cleaning this up is going to be an agonizingly long, arduous process. Fortunately now the city is limping back to normalcy. Traffic is slowly getting back to its usual levels, businesses are opening once again, and Chennai airport has resumed limited operations.
One can say, “I hope that a disaster of this magnitude never hits Chennai again!”, but it is impossible to say whether that will remain true or not. Unfortunately, rains of this magnitude are fully consistent with climate change models, in which ocean warming is predicted. These rains were said to have been caused by an El Nino effect resulting from ocean warming. My gut tells me that this is not the last time it will rain so heavily here, and that the city needs to be prepared for a next time, because there will be one.
But then again, what do I know? I am not a meteorologist.
EDIT (Dec. 11): Wow, thanks for the support everybody! This is my most-viewed post to date. I’m glad to see that this is getting so much attention, and even though it has been a over a week since the rain ended, the work is not over yet. The city still needs to rebuild; lots of property was destroyed, and thousands of people need to find their way back to their homes. Please do donate to any relief funds if you can.