Shyamala Sathiaseelan, an entrepreneur, was flying from Ireland to Chennai on December 3 when heavy rains began pounding the Tamil Nadu capital. With the Chennai airport shutting down on December 4, Shyamala found herself stuck at the Abu Dhabi airport. Provided a clean bed, some food, and armed with a fully charged mobile phone and laptop, she decided to do what little she could for the people of Chennai, sitting nearly 3,000 kilometres away.
The 50-year-old is a member of Chennai Cares (formerly Chennai Rain Relief), a volunteer group that played a vital role during the 2015 floods, helping coordinate rescue and relief operations. Sitting in Abu Dhabi, Shyamala was doing much of the back-end work. “I asked people what their situation was… if they were safe or needed help,” she recalls.
Chennai Cares unofficially started after the 2004 tsunami, which left over 8,000 dead and affected thousands across six coastal districts in Tamil Nadu. “There was no social media back then. People just got together to form this group. Around 90-95% of people were from NGOs,” says Shyamala. It was in 2015 that the Ireland-based mother of two joined Chennai Rain Relief. “For the first time, individuals like me who were not associated with any NGOs and wanted to volunteer joined the group,” she says.
When panic and distress messages began trickling in on December 3 this year, Chennai Cares in many ways picked up where it had left off in 2015. With around 100 members now, the group quickly split into smaller teams, dividing the city’s zones amongst themselves. While one team tracked X (formerly Twitter) for distress messages and collated the information, other teams verified the messages and followed up with individuals on what their status was and whether they needed any help. “We organised ourselves in such a way that one person was in charge of one or two zones. We would be in contact with people in just those zones. It was easier and more streamlined,” says Sudha Ramamoorthy, a disability rights activist and a volunteer with Chennai Cares.
With volunteers from different backgrounds spread across multiple time zones, there was always one person round the clock. Shyamala says, “We follow the clock system. It’s interesting how somebody from Europe would take over from me (when I was in Abu Dhabi) and then somebody from India would take over from the US person.”
While Sudha and Shyamala had volunteered in 2015 and 2023, they both agreed that there were many differences and challenges between the two floods. For starters, more people were using landlines back in 2015 than this year. “Even though there was no electricity and no signal or no charge on mobile phones, we could reach out to people on landline phones,” Shyamala points out. This time, several neighbourhoods had no power for more than a day. Mobile phone networks were also down in many areas. This presented several challenges for volunteers.
Shyamala says, “If they’re unreachable for more than 24 hours, that becomes worrisome. It means rescue hasn’t reached them, it means they are in a place where they can’t charge their phones. So that is when you start worrying.” She, however, notes that many were not answering calls from unknown numbers. “What we realised was people were saving their mobile phone battery and not picking calls from random numbers. So we sent WhatsApp messages to reach out to people to find out if they were safe and needed help,” she says.
Sudha, who is based in Chennai, says she was able to help out only because the rains didn’t affect her household as much as the rest of the city. “I was actually very lucky. The power went off but returned after a few hours,” she says.
Another big challenge for volunteers at Chennai Cares was that a lot of residents initially didn’t want to be rescued. “I think they expected the water to drain. Because I remember on the day it started raining, a lot of people were asked if they would like to be rescued. I don’t think anybody expected the water to stagnate and stay at such high levels,” recounts Sudha, who was handling many areas in north Chennai, “So by the end of the day on December 5, the situation was really bad, that’s when people wanted to move out of their homes.”
Sudha recalls the case of an elderly woman who was bedridden and needed to be evacuated. “I was in touch with the monitoring officer of that zone who had held back a boat beyond the required time just because we said one person needs to be evacuated. But her daughter didn’t want to move her. The next morning too, the monitoring officer informed me that she still didn’t want to be evacuated. It was only later that he managed to convince them and evacuated the elderly woman out of her home,” says Sudha.
She points out that many people don’t realise that those undertaking the rescue, such as the fire department personnel, are skilled at evacuating wheelchair users or those incapacitated. The Chennai Cares volunteer says, “We tell them the rescuers have the skills, they know how to do it, and they have the equipment and stretchers for these situations. I tried to convince people to leave, but finally it is their call. People don’t realise that if they delay, it becomes even more difficult for them to be rescued.”
There were a few silver linings. Sudha says that 108 ambulances were better equipped than in 2015. She points to two cases, where the 108 ambulance technicians came through when no one else could. “There was a 90-year-old woman who had had a fall and wasn’t conscious. There was no way of getting her out of the house because of waist-deep water. Her family tried paying people to shift her out, but nothing was working out. But the 108 ambulance people went and parked the vehicles 300 metres away. They waded through waist-deep water and brought her out in a stretcher,” she recalls.
In another case, a woman who had low oxygen levels was looking for an oxygen cylinder. “She didn’t want to be moved out as she lives with her elderly parents. When I called 108, they initially said they wouldn’t be able to deliver an oxygen cylinder. But eventually they were the only ones who got through to her. They met her and left the cylinder behind although it’s not the usual practice.”
Shyamala says that one key difference between the two floods was that there were more volunteer groups on the ground in 2015. She says, “People were cooking food in huge quantities and taking it to different places in 2015. It happened over a course of four or five days. I didn’t see it happen this time for more than two days. I guess the need for it was less compared to 2015.”
And although many parts of Chennai may have bounced back faster in 2023 than in 2015, this wasn’t true of north Chennai, says Sudha. “The relief centres in north Chennai were flooded or didn’t have food. I don’t think the government reached out to the residents in some areas. They still haven’t done the usual mobile medical camps or disinfected these areas.”
How responsive were monitoring officers when it came to reacting to many of the distress calls that Chennai Cares received? Sudha says that a couple of officers she was in touch with responded almost immediately. “Within just three rings, they would pick up their phones and say, ‘Okay, tell me what exactly is needed’. But in north Chennai, I struggled to even get through to them over calls, SMS, or WhatsApp. I got yelled at by many people who were upset that they hadn’t been rescued or that they had not received food. I also got yelled at by a monitoring officer. One of them said, ‘You’re sending us messages but they’ve already been rescued.’ I had to explain that I had sent those messages a couple of days ago. So it really depended on who the person was,” Sudha recalls.
While the relief operations concluded a few days ago, the focus for some members in Chennai Cares has shifted to the floods in south Tamil Nadu. And no, the volunteer group isn’t active only when there’s a flood. The reason the group changed its name from Chennai Rain Relief is because these volunteers have pitched in every time there’s been a disaster – from Cyclone Vardah to the COVID-19 pandemic.