Can’t control nature, must control our greed: Lessons from the 2015 Chennai floods

TNM interviews two weather bloggers and a volunteer at Chennai Rain Relief 2015 on what lessons they learnt from the deluge.
Can’t control nature, must control our greed: Lessons from the 2015 Chennai floods
Can’t control nature, must control our greed: Lessons from the 2015 Chennai floods
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A year after the devastating December floods in Chennai, the city and its people may have picked themselves up and moved on. But memories of the disaster that unfolded on the night of December 1, remain fresh. In this series, The News Minute interviews citizens from different walks of life to find out what lessons they learnt from the day Chennai went under water. 

The December deluge exposed a number of gaps in the state’s planning for the Northeast monsoon, and in its handling of the disaster. While the Indian Meteorological Department issued weather bulletins once in a few hours, the updates were considered few and far between for many citizens, who wanted real-time information on the rains and the floods.

Flooded with calls from thousands of residents, the official response to rescue and relief was slow, while coordination between the state government and the different agencies remained poor. In a bid to streamline efforts and mobilise help where most needed, volunteers and NGOs came together under one umbrella group – the Chennai Rain Relief 2015. Using its wide network of volunteers, CRR helped rescue hundreds stranded in the floods, and organised relief material in the aftermath of the disaster.    

The News Minute spoke to two weather bloggers, who became a lifeline for netizens looking for instant updates on the rains and also to one of the volunteers at Chennai Rain Relief, on the lessons learnt from the disaster.  

Pradeep John, Tamil Nadu Weatherman: People fear that every spell of rain will be like the December 1 floods last year. The deluge affected people like never before. I have to now reassure people that rains won’t bring floods every time. What happened on December 1, 2015 was a once in a lifetime event. 

I first started the weather blog in 2008, but took to Facebook in 2012. In October, last year, I hardly had 500 followers on my Facebook page. Now, I have over 1.43 lakh likes on my page. 

With no power during the floods, I used three laptops and borrowed sim cards from my parents to regularly update the page.  I noticed just how fast my posts on the rains were spreading, when I saw them come back to me in the form of a WhatsApp message 30 minutes later. It was then I realised that people are taking me seriously and I have a responsibility to post. One of my last updates was at 3:30am on December 2, saying the rains had stopped. 

Nobody gave a damn about the weather before the floods. Even the government is not taking any chances this time with Cyclone Nada.  One of the learnings post the floods is that we can’t take any chances. 

Personally, one of the biggest learnings after the December floods, is that numerical models are not everything. Nature takes its own course. No one expected the deluge. None of the models predicted it. It was an extreme weather event.  

But perhaps the biggest learning we should all take is to respect nature. So many lakes and waterways have been encroached upon over the years and when the floods happened, the water took its natural course. Before people buy property, they should check if it’s encroaching on a catchment area or a lake bed or waterways. 

K Srikanth, Chennaiyil Oru Mazhaikkaalam: The floods were far bigger than what we expected. We started our blog two years ago, but had only a few hundred followers before the floods on Twitter. Now we’re almost touching 50,000 followers. 

One of the biggest lessons we learnt is that there is a gap between what people expect and what IMD is able to give on the news media. That’s why weather bloggers are forced to pitch in. Officials have to get actively engaged on social media. It is the fastest way of disseminating information and is also the fastest way to counter rumours. 

Weather bloggers cannot be irresponsible and this is something we have thought about even before the December 1 floods. We have always been conservative in our predictions. If I am not sure, I won’t put it out. We have a lot of responsibility because people place a lot of trust in us.

But posting weather updates on Twitter and the blog were challenging during the floods since telephone and mobile lines were down and there was intermittent power in my neighbourhood. I had to charge my mobile phone using the car charger but thankfully my mobile data worked, allowing me to tweet and blog. 

Vaishnavi Jayakumar, Chennai Rain Relief 2015: I saw no improvement in the Tamil Nadu government's disaster responsiveness between the 2004 tsunami and 2015's rains-turned-floods-thanks-to-human-error.

Somewhat more alarming was the zero progress made by civil society NGOs in the same space. In some ways, the tsunami response was more sustained with concerted responses and lasting power.

With work grinding to a halt, the community at large turned proactive...good ideas spread virally. Sadly, equally virally, busy hands on WhatsApp flooded the mindscape with hoaxes, outdated information and infinitely looping appeals.

Repetitive waste wasn't limited to social chatter – it spilled over into action with civil society refusing to work with government authorities or each other for that matter. Government bodies on their part performed admirably on ground, but to no avail as key decision-making and coordination by the state was missing.

Perhaps the greatest learning for me last year was the sense of unreality – when one can't believe the state will not come to the rescue, that safety will not be assured. And that, far from society's viral flooding of airwaves, the State's vital, much hoped-for communication channels were resoundingly and obstinately silent. This left people with a sinking, panic-inducing realisation that managing this crisis was going to be a free-for-all. Thankfully, an each-one-to-themselves mentality did not spread.

Except when it came to privileged, well-off people jumping the rescue priority queue. Very Titanic!

The not-so-great realisation was that while well-intentioned, 'help' often came with smug self-congratulation, heroics-seeking, poor judgement and a selfie-stick.

The greatest learning? That we have short memories and as urban Indians, our greed and wastefulness remains unsurpassed – we have learnt nothing at all in respecting balance in our exploitation of natural resources.

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