A few hours after the torrential rains in Chennai left several parts of the city severely flooded and power lines were down, the communications lines too went down. For a few hours, all the towers were rendered non-functional. You can read about what exactly happened with communication lines here.
After the rains subsided, a few lines came back. At this point, something strange was happening. While no phone calls were getting connected, data packets seem to be pick-up channels. Basically, services like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook were functional, especially if the use was only for text and no photos or videos were being uploaded. While Twitter and Facebook became rallying points to seek help from other parts of the world and bring together information on the situation on the ground, it was WhatsApp which was the real lifeline for both people in Chennai and those who were trying to contact their friends and family. WhatsApp has far more users as well.
Over those couple of days as Chennai got back to life, WhatsApp was the saviour, from relief and rescue work to banking.
Take the case of journalist Latha Srinivasan. On December 2, she was stranded along with several others at Global Hospital on OMR. She sent SOS messages on Twitter and WhatsApp. The signal was too erratic for calls, but her texts through data services reached the world outside. It was through WhatsApp that a senior officer in TN government was informed, who in turn told the PWD minister. The minister reached out to Latha and arranged for help.
Several other calls for help, for stranded pregnant women, children and senior citizens were routed through data services like WhatsApp and social media networks.
Even those who were stranded in their houses with no way out were able to send out messages stating that their area was sensitive and people should not attempt to reach those areas.
The cops found it very useful too. The Hindu reports that in order to help those living abroad to get in touch with their loved ones, the city police has set up an exclusive helpline 23452314.
â€śThis was the idea of commissioner T. K. Rajendran. We have received around 600 calls in the last couple of days alone. Many called from abroad ask us about the well-being of their family members,â€ť added the officer. Thirty teams consisting of two policemen, who knew swimming, were formed. â€śThey were deployed in different parts of the city. Since WhatsApp alone was working, we formed a group called Rescue Team. As and when we got a call, we forwarded the address to the group and the respective personnel rode or swam to the destination,â€ť an officer is quoted as stating.
Even for dedicated banking officials who were trying to help people, WhatsApp came in handy.
R Sowrirajan, a former banker himself, explains how employees at a Bank of Baroda branch at Mudichur were processing cash withdrawals even though the lines were down. As people lined up outside the Mudichur branch to withdraw money from their account through cheques, the bank manager Seethalakshmi went to the nearby Tamabaram branch where the lines were up, and logged into the system. Meanwhile, her team at the Mudichur branch were taking pictures of the cheques on WhatsApp and sending it to her. She fed it into the system, processed the payments and directed her team to handover the money at Mudichur. â€śTo me, it is a fantastic mixture of technology use, customer centricity and ingenuity,â€ť says Sowrirajan.