Torrential showers for the second time in five days pounded Chennai and gale force winds forced authorities to bar incoming flights for seven hours on Thursday as thousands of residents scrambled for high ground and rescue personnel waded through knee-deep water to rescue citizens.
At least 14 people have died in rain fury across Tamil Nadu since Sunday, when Chennai was battered by 210mm of rainfall, the highest single day rainfall for the month of November since 2015.
In the last 24 hours, the city received 203.5mm of rain, inundating many iconic neighbourhoods, residential areas and commercial hubs in the southern city.
State minister for revenue and disaster management, KKSSR Ramachandran, said two people died on Thursday in Thanjavur and Thiruvarur.
The minister said Tamil Nadu received a total of 405mm of rainfall from October 1 to November 11, an excess of 56%. The other affected districts were Kancheepuram, Chengalpattu, Thiruvallur, Villupuram, Cuddalore and Karaikal.
By evening, rain had abated in several parts of Chennai and officials were signalling that the worst was behind them. At 5.30pm, the Regional Meteorological Centre (RMC) withdrew the red alert for Chennai as the depression in the Bay of Bengal, which triggered the downpour across southern India, finally made landfall.
“It will rain intermittently tonight and isolated places can see very heavy rainfall but it will slowly reduce by tomorrow (Friday),” RMC Chennai chief S Balachandran told reporters.
Chennai, a city of 11 million, woke up on Thursday to streets, homes, and hospitals flooded. As water levels rose, nearly 18,000 rescue personnel cut through fallen trees and used motor boats to reach people cut off by swirling sheets of water. T Nagar, KK Nagar, West Mambalam and Velachery were submerged, as were low-lying areas near the coast.
Sanitation workers braved the downpour to declutter drains, collect waste from households, and remove snapped electricity wires. Corporation officials said water had stagnated in 523 locations in the city, out of which only 68 could be cleared by the end of day. However, they were able to remove 237 out of the 240 trees that had been uprooted on Thursday.
Chief minister MK Stalin hailed the rescue workers and tweeted images of them at work. “Let’s all work together to return to normalcy quickly,” he said.
Yet, there was no electricity at some places in the city and residents in some areas complained that little had changed since Sunday, when shock rainfall first inundated the city. “For the last two days, civic workers have been pumping out water stagnated around our apartment but it kept coming back in half an hour. Today it’s not possible to do anything because the water is at least four-feet deep,” said V Narayanasamy, a resident of T Nagar, one of the worst affected areas.
People living on ground floor in Ashok Nagar shifted out of their homes. Patients from the flooded ground floor of the government hospital in KK Nagar were moved to other blocks, hospital officials said. In some neighbourhoods, people parked their cars on top of flyovers to prevent them from getting submerged.
A resident of north Chennai, Ashok Modi, said they had to survive without power for two days. “Every year, we face the same problems during November and December. We are safe for now but our life is completely paralysed until waters recede,” said Modi.
Disaster management minister Ramachandran said Tamil Nadu received a total of 405mm of rainfall from October 1 to November 11, an excess of 56%.
“Traditionally low lying areas are still inundated,” said Greater Chennai Corporation commissioner Gagandeep Singh Bedi. “We closed subways as a precaution. We have requested people to avoid stepping outside their homes.”
Transport hubs shut
The Airports Authority suspended flights from the city airport between 11.15am and 6pm, though some departures were allowed. The railways said it was working “overtime” to restore services on the local train network and repairing damage caused to interstate tracks because of strong winds gusting 45 kmph, the RMC said. The Madras high court was forced to work virtually after all roads in the area were submerged.
Stalin advised people to remain indoors and said free food would be provided through Amma Canteens till the flood situation improved. He claimed that the situation was under control and said officials were appointed for each ward of the Greater Chennai Municipal Corporation area to monitor the situation.
The CM also constituted a panel of six ministers to assess the crop damage in delta districts, which were also pulverised by heavy rain. The National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) in a statement said 11 teams were deployed in Tamil Nadu, two in Puducherry and five in Andhra Pradesh. “We have set up a around the clock control to monitor the situation,” NDRF said.
In all, 10,073 people were moved to 185 relief camps across Tamil Nadu and more than 1,000 hutments damaged. Reservoirs in Chembarambakkam, Redhills, Cholavaram, Poondi and Veeranam had reached their maximum capacity and water was being discharged from the reservoirs.
Chennai collectorate announced a holiday for all schools and colleges in the city on Friday. Unlike Sunday, when the sudden deluge caught authorities unawares, officials were better prepared on Thursday with over 400 boats deployed in Chennai itself.
Rainfall at this time in Tamil Nadu is not unusual but experts have warned that the climate crisis and unchecked development in low lying areas have exacerbated the problem. The climate crisis has rainfall more intense and frequent and the urbanisation of water bodies has resulted in blocking of discharge outlets, say experts.
No lessons learnt
Moreover, the crisis underlined that only temporary patchwork was done after the 2015 tragedy, and no permanent solutions – removing encroachments on flood plains, stopping the dumping of fly ash, municipal waste and industrial effluents on river basins and unclogging decades-old storm water drains – were undertaken.
“Normally Chennai receives an average rainfall of 38-40 cm in November and we have exceeded that already,” said former deputy director of the India Meteorological Department YEA Raj. “We still have 19 days to go so we may see record rainfall or not.”
Independent weather expert Pradeep John said that the problem of water-logging was more due to unplanned development and blocking of water discharge systems, especially in the low lying areas close to the coast. “Despite building new drains worth crore of rupees, the problem remains and could continue,” he said.
He said this November could break the record for the most rainfall received by the city. According to IMD’s data, the record is held by November 1918 with 1088 mm. “If we take cumulatively, many stations from Wednesday has crossed 200 mm rainfall in 24-hours. Only four times 1000mm has been breached by Chennai’s Nungambakkam in an entire month in 200 years,” said John.