Last year on December 1, Chennai received 374 mm of rains. This came at the back of one of its heaviest rainfall months ever: November 2015 recorded 1,218 mm of rains, close to the annual average of 1400 mm for the city.
A deluge of floods followed. Tens of thousands were stranded for several days.
But something even more extraordinary unfolded next.
Ordinary citizens rose to the forefront in the rescue and relief operations that followed.
Karthik Subramanian and P.M.Naveen look back through the eyes of some volunteers the life lessons the rains and the floods of 2015 left behind.
The power of responsibility
It was the morning of December 1, 2015.
Pradeep John woke up with an inkling that his prediction for extremely heavy rains for the city was about to come true.
The 34-year-old who goes by the online moniker **Tamilnadu Weatherman** was by then a social media star known for his accurate predictions.
The city had just been battered by heavy rains with two particularly bad days on November 16 and November 23. The residents were coping and the city’s civic infrastructure was on the edge.
No one wanted any more rains. Pradeep knew it was only a matter of time.
“The live tracking on the Met website and the rain data from Cuddalore the previous night made it clear,” Pradeep recalls. Many weather bloggers on the Kea Weather network, a forum of over 100 active weather bloggers where Pradeep is an ‘admin’, agreed.
He keyed in the first words of his post on Facebook: “The D-day has finally arrived.”
Pradeep suggested that those working at offices and going to schools or colleges in the southern parts of the city could take leave and stay at home. The weather system was moving from Cuddalore, 200 kilometres away, and fast approaching.
Pradeep’s fascination for predicting rains and studying weather patterns began at an early age. When he was just a school student, he maintained a notebook in which he would write down weather data from The Hindu newspaper.
Over the years, he actively used the internationally accepted mathematical model Global Forecast System to predict weather. It left him with an acute sense for rains.
The weather system he saw that December morning was unusual. It was not like the previous two systems that brought heavy rains in November.
“Most of the North East Monsoon rain systems for Chennai are associated with Low Pressure Area or Depressions. They bring rains to the coastal areas, then move inland and lose potency. But this was different. It was not even a low pressure area and it stagnated over the city for several hours. The moisture from Bay of Bengal was feeding the rain bands over Chennai continuously and they were blocked by a ridge (an atmospheric barrier). It was similar to how Cherrapunji gets intense rains during its monsoon due to blocking of moisture by Khasi Hills. It felt like Chennai had been targeted.”
By afternoon, Pradeep asked his colleagues to leave for home early. He left office around 3:30 p.m. The 12 kilometre drive to home took two and a half hours, as sheets of water brought down visibility.
Once home, he told his family to charge all phones, finish tasks that need electricity and prepare for power cuts. He took to his laptop and started engaging with his audience.
But this time he was reaching out with more than just updates.
“People started asking me if I had reached home safe,” he recalls. “Then different questions came. Some people asked me if they can take refuge at places till the rains stopped. A few others pinged me whether the time was right to launch rescue operations. I felt a sense of responsibility to help but I did not have contact numbers of rescue organisations or NGOs.”
“All I could do was to put out more posts telling people that these rains did not seem like it would stop any time soon.”
His updates continued until 3 a.m. the next day. “I finally saw the system lose its potency and I posted that there will be no more heavy rains and if at all, only intermittent showers. Only then could I go to sleep.”
Pradeep today has over 1.35 lakh followers on Facebook and it has instilled in him a sense of responsibility.
The boy who was so fascinated with weather charts is today a weatherman of repute.
“All weather watchers are pluviophiles. We love to see rains. But for some hours on that day, I prayed that the rains would stop.”
The power of asking
The rains lashed Chennai on December 1. The floods came the next day.
Ashwin Chhabria goes back to the evening of December 2. “I started calling my friends and family to see if they were doing alright. Then I found out that many in other locations of the city were facing serious problems. I wanted to help but all I could do was make phone calls. I did not even know if I was helping them but I kept making those calls.”
As the extent of the floods and its impact became clear in the following days, a group of NGOs were putting in place a coordinated effort to help. A crisis management team that would call itself **Chennai Rain Relief** would play a pivotal role in the coming days.
The 23-year-old had earlier volunteered with the NGO Bhoomika Trust and pounced at the chance to be a part of its crisis management team. “Among other things, I was also responsible for flagging emergency situations to the government, coordinating chopper and boat rescues and assessing the city’s condition at an overall level,” Ashwin recalls.
There have been cases where tech-savvy citizens have used social media to help each other during times of crisis. It happened during the terror attacks of Paris in 2015 and during the floods in Kashmir in 2014.
Can Chennai and her residents pitch in effectively? Chennai Rain Relief was figuring out ways.
Ashwin and other volunteers worked out of a make-shift office in the relatively unaffected part of Balaji Nagar in Royapettah.
They faced unusual challenges. For starters, not everyone in the city had electricity or internet for many days to come. They had to figure out ways of funnelling all the cries of help — from social networks, SMS messages and instant messengers like WhatsApp — into one database.
They used multiple tools. They used forms on Google to group people in two lists: the ones needing help and the ones willing to help. Complex codes were needed to automate the function of connecting seekers and helpers.
Volunteers attended to phone calls through the day to help people.
This was when Ashwin says he learnt an important lesson: “When in need, just ask for help.”
“I did not know how to write code. But we needed someone with that expertise. I put out a message through Facebook asking help from anyone who knew coding.”
A friend from Singapore, Bharat Narayanan, pitched in and connected Ashwin with two coders from California. In quick time, a code was ready. It worked on a simple premise: it would track the geo-codes of the relief workers and those seeking help. Based on proximity, it would send a list of 20 nearest help seekers to a relief worker. The relief workers would then contact the seekers, resolve the problem if possible and call back the helpline with a status.
The code that Ashwin collaborated on helped connect 1,575 people with bare necessities like clothes and food.
Ashwin said other management principles helped maintain efficiency. “We put into practise effective team room communications. If I was looking at a list of whose distress call we had recorded in a database, I would simply shout it out. This helped avoid duplication of efforts.”
In a blog post, Ashwin summarised: “Am so thankful to have met you wonderful people. A little help goes a long way. I just had to shout out and say a big thank you!”
The power of belonging
“Until then I always felt Chennai was not an easy city for outsiders,” Naveen Kumar says.
The 28-year-old works with a management and IT consulting firm. A native of the small town Karur in central Tamilnadu, he shifted to Chennai in 2008.
His office is in Thoraipakkam in the city’s famed ‘IT corridor’. Urban activists point out that the region stands over what was once the natural drain for the city. It bore the brunt of the December floods.
Naveen and his colleagues witnessed heavy flooding. Many of his colleagues were stranded for days after their houses went under water.
It helped that he is also a part of his company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) venture Carestream that regularly collected used clothes from donors and redistributed to the needy. This experience would come in handy in the days to come.
His first call for action came through a friend who had planned to visit Chennai during the first week of December. He had booked a room at the upmarket Hablis Hotel. But the floods made him cancel his trip. Instead of cancelling the booking, he asked Naveen to identify the stranded and offer them the room. The act moved Naveen.
Not only did he find someone to use the hotel room, he himself opened the doors of his apartment for those who needed shelter. “My only criterion was to find out whether the people were genuine”.
Soon he and his roommate, a native of another small town, Theni, in South Tamil Nadu, started volunteering for the relief efforts. “In the beginning, it was just me and my friend. Then every one who contacted, be it my family or friends, wanted to know how they could pitch in and help.”
The volunteering, he says, also changed him as a person. “Until then, I used to be a lazy person. But as I started volunteering, I enjoyed the change that it brought to my life. Today, I consciously try to make an effort and help someone every month.”
Naveen also saw changes in others and acts of goodwill he never thought were possible. “Our company sent an entire container of clothes from US for relief work. They even sanctioned giving away cash towards relief measures. Ours is an IT company and we never release cash that easily. I just went wow.”
The spirit of volunteering in the days that followed the floods was contagious. Volunteers from neighbouring cities and towns pitched in — by getting here or through online.
Naveen says he no longer feels like an outsider in Chennai.
“Earlier I used to party a lot and spend a lot of money pub hopping. But these days, I am conscious of spending too much money. I feel it could come in handy for someone in need.”