What running a relief-supplies center during Chennai floods taught me

From getting volunteers to helping people- social media made the process so smooth
What running a relief-supplies center during Chennai floods taught me
What running a relief-supplies center during Chennai floods taught me
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By Jayanth Kashyap B

Tamil Nadu (including Chennai) had been receiving heavy rainfall since Nov 14, 2015. The government authorities were forced to discharge huge volumes of excess water from the key reservoirs in and around Chennai, flooding certain segments of the city.

And on Dec 1, 2015 Chennai experienced freak rainfall that lasted more than 16 hours non-stop. Later, rainfall statistics would report that on that day alone, Chennai had experienced rainfall of up-to 463 mm, about 40% of the rainfall received in the WHOLE of November. Once again, excess water of more than 30,000 cusecs (about ~19000 million gallons) was discharged into the city within a span of 48 hours and Chennai was officially declared a disaster zone the following evening on Dec 2, 2015. Almost 60% of the city was submerged, with water levels at 12 feet in several areas. Hundreds of lives were lost. But the city's brave citizens were not ready to give up just yet. Not to forget the excellent rescue and relief efforts undertaken by the Armed Forces, Navy, NDRF and our very own Chennai Police!

Though airports and key highways to the city were choked, relief materials from neighboring cities like Bangalore, Kerala, Hyderabad and even from states like Maharashtra started pouring in. Certain large non-profit/charitable organizations had been doing excellent work in functioning as relief-aid command centers since the previous bout of rainfall in November, but nevertheless actual distribution efforts were undertaken by hundreds of courageous and enthusiastic volunteers, with little care for their own safety or comfort. 

Independent volunteer groups began to set-up relief-aid centers of their own, decentralizing the distribution process and helping the aid materials reach a larger group of severely affected families.

As someone keen on creating social impact, how could I just observe these wonderful human endeavors and not help? I would be doing mere lip-service by talking about impact investing or wanting to support have a positive impact on the society. Surely, there must be a way to be of use?

It was then that I decided to set-up a relief-aid center to take care of the aid requests from South Chennai, which seemed to be lacking organized aid collection centers.

With the help of three other amazing friends, we managed to get the permission to set-up the center at a local school (bless them!)  for its proximity to badly-hit areas in South Chennai. But running and managing a relief-aid center was far from easy. A group of four volunteers alone cannot have the desired impact I had envisioned.

Lesson #1 - Social Media is a powerful tool, when used for the right purposes, makes a huge positive difference

  • On the first day of operations at around 8 AM, I put out an open request over Facebook for volunteers to join us at the center to support the relief-aid operations. By 12:30 PM, we had 46 amazing people, ready and willing to volunteer.
  • On all days of operations,  we shared detailed donation requests listing out the relief-aid requirements for the day - including essentials, medical supplies and clothing.
  • I would also share EOD inventory position for the benefit of those giving/seeking aid. This was subsequently broadcasted over a FM channel as well. The number of aid-request calls we received was more than 700, over the three days of operations !

Lesson #2 : Managing and working with new people is a skill to be constantly refined

Lesson #3 : People do well, when given complete ownership

  • With most of the volunteers complete strangers to each other, we had to ensure proper operational processes - in terms of managing incoming donations, categorizing inventory, distributing aid and keeping stock of  inventory
  • Subsequently, we organized the 46 volunteers into sub-teams to manage donors, beneficiaries, distribution and inventory documentation. While I managed the overall center operations, aid-procurement and aid-request collection/verification.
  • We had a complete excel record of all the donors, donations, aid-distribution, volunteers and inventory position. In this situation, a flat team structure worked beautifully and every volunteer took complete ownership of his/her own units when he/she was asked to do so.

Lesson #4 : Decision making is tested, when resources are not in abundance

Lesson #5 : Networking WINS

  • Sure, we had a relief-aid center. But did we have relief materials to provide for a fourth of the city? No.
  • Blankets, sleeping mats, baby diapers and women sanitary pads were in extremely high demand. Medical supplies like Saibol (anti-fungal cream), paracetamol and disinfectants were constantly requested in lots of 150 or more.
  • We wanted to reach the relief materials to as many affected families as possible, so naturally we did not/could not concentrate on a single area/locality. If we had 50 blankets available, we would ration 20:30 depending on the number of beneficiary groups requesting for the same.Working with minimal resources never seemed more important.
  • With materials constantly in short-supply, we reached out to our contacts within our network to source aid-supplies and coordinated with volunteer groups in other areas to bulk-procure supplies. On Dec 8, 2015 - we managed to re-direct a huge container of relief-aid supplies from Bangalore to our center. (almost 45% of our entire stock)
  • On the aid-verification front, some of the volunteers had fantastic connections within the NDRF and Police Control Room teams - effectively providing us real-time data on areas in need of relief-aid.

Lesson #6 : Donors and Volunteers are AMAZING. They are selfless, but their contributions HAVE to be recognized

Lesson #7 : Transparency in EVERYTHING is key

  • Finally, I prepared a full donor report, detailing the center operations, and shared the same over social media to enforce transparency and to acknowledge the generosity and communal spirit of the donors and volunteers.
  • After all, the best satisfaction these good Samaritans can get is through the knowledge that their efforts and contributions, however small/big - made a difference.
  • After 3 days of intense operations, we had managed to collect donations from over 86 individual donors (excluding the Truck Load of supplies) and distributed all of the relief-supplies worth roughly about USD 22K, to over 2,200 affected families in over 23 areas in Chennai.

All I can say is that it was a transformative experience - not just for me. But for everyone, who toiled relentlessly to help the city when it needed them most. I now have immense respect for humanitarian-aid workers around the world, helping people in-need 24/7. Salute.

Probably the greatest lesson I learned is that every person has an innate desire to help others regardless of rank, race or religion during extraordinary times.

For those of us intent on creating social impact, this is perhaps the greatest validation that we are moving towards a world, where irresponsible practices cannot and should not exist and where doing good, and doing good sustainably is the norm of the day.

This has been republished from LinkedIn. Image courtesy: 

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