Going beyond the call of duty: The lesson I learnt covering the 2015 Chennai floods

Phone networks were down, rumours were rife, and reporting on the floods was the most challenging assignment for many of Chennai's reporters.
Going beyond the call of duty: The lesson I learnt covering the 2015 Chennai floods
Going beyond the call of duty: The lesson I learnt covering 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. 

For many journalists – veteran or cub – the 2015 floods were perhaps the most challenging assignment they have reported on. The basic tasks of information gathering and verification were constantly tested as telephone and mobile networks went down and rumour-mongering took over, sustained by WhatsApp forwards and social media.  TNM spoke to two journalists on their experiences covering the floods and what lessons they took away from reporting on one of the worst disasters in Chennai. 

Lavanya Natarajan, Reporter, News7: As a junior reporter, with two years of experience last year, my biggest learning from the floods is that it is our responsibility to go beyond journalism and reportage. Being witness to so much suffering, it is our responsibility to ensure that concerned authorities respond to these calls of distress. This is something I have followed even after the floods, where I follow up with officials and hold them accountable for any civic issue that I may report on.

I was asked to report from Saidapet in Chennai on December 2. As my cameraperson and I stood by the Saidapet bridge and surveyed the disaster that had unfolded down below, my eyes filled with tears. The city was my home, I spent my entire childhood here, and seeing the destruction unravel before me left me emotional. I was terrified. But I knew I could not show out my fear either on-air or in public. People on the streets approached us to find out the news and I knew that if I passed on my fears to them there would be panic.  

The Chennai floods also made me realise that humanity will come forward during times of crisis. I had interviewed a fisherman in Thoraipakkam last year, who had brought his boat to help in rescue operations. When I asked him why he had come, he replied saying, “The same people who need rescuing had helped me during the tsunami. This is my thanks.”  

Stalin, Senior Correspondent, Puthiya Thalaimurai: I will never forget the December 1 floods. Being on the 6am shift, I started doing lives early in the morning but ended up being on-air the entire day, until the last bulletin at 10pm. I covered some of the worst-hit areas in the city – Velachery, Madipakkam and West Tambaram. 

Although I had covered three cyclones – Thane, Neelam and Helen – in the past, that was nothing compared to the floods in Chennai. As I stood near the Adyar river, I saw cows getting swept away. Wherever I went, I was forced to wade through at least hip-deep water. In fact, when I was doing a live report in North Chennai, I could see the water levels rise while I was on-air. 

While verifying information was a challenge for a number of reporters on the ground, I managed to cross-check developments with my sources in the Tamil Nadu government. As my beats are AIADMK and Secretariat, getting information and verifying news wasn’t difficult. But when communication was hit, and power was shut down, I gathered most information from the ground, verifying news with rescue personnel or officials on the ground. 

The channel I work for was also affected by the floods. The Puthiya Thalaimurai headquarters at Ekkatuthangal in Chennai was hit by the floods, with the channel being forced to stop broadcasting for two days. 

One of my biggest learnings from the floods was that I had a responsibility not just to report but to also help those who were affected. As we had access to many officials, we would call them up and ask them to arrange boats for those who needed rescuing.  

I also realised that during times of crisis, as a journalist, I need to be especially sensitive when interviewing people who are in distress. 

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