A NEWS REPORT
The rain came, and Chennai responded by opening its doors. Over the last few days, as the streets got flooded and increasingly dangerous to navigate, our city responded with overwhelming generosity. Locals have been posting their addresses online, offering food and shelter to anyone who needs it. Theatres, malls and restaurants have thrown open their doors. Impromptu rescue teams have been formed to help those who are stranded. The gestures range from families cooking food all night so it can be distributed to the hungry, to thoughtful Chennaiites with Internet access offering to recharge phones with talk time for people with no balance or electricity.
City opens its doors
It’s early yet on Wednesday morning, but Dr. Sai Kishore from Paalavakkam is busy wading through water-logged streets, handing out packets of food to those in need. The medico who runs the K.L. Hospital in Neelankarai, threw open his hospital doors for those stranded in the rain. “As of last evening we had at least 10 families take shelter at the hospital. We went around picking up those stranded in the hospital ambulance. After a point though the ambulance could not ply on the water-logged streets. Now, my team and I are going around the area distributing packets of food that we cooked in the hospital mess to those in need,” he explains, adding, “The way the city has come together to help others in need is very encouraging. There is such a sense of unity at this time of crisis.”Help came from all corners as Sowmya Reddy put together a crowd-sourced Google doc encouraging people to open up their homes to those affected by the floods. With nearly 225 volunteers posting their contact details and offering to host people in their homes, the list has come as a boon for the city.
Naveen Kumar, an IT employee who lives in Kotturpuram, had people from the Mandaveli area seek refuge at his house. “I did the same last week and am more than willing to host people this time round too. The situation is pretty bad and it’s the one way I could extend help, so why not? I had two people come over last night and we provided them with food and shelter,” he says.
While Suresh Kumar, a volunteer from Medavakkam, didn’t receive any calls from people looking for shelter, he did receive calls from people wading through the flood waters and looking for some food. “A group of people got in touch with me through my listing. They had been walking from OMR to Kovilavakkam through water-logged streets and were looking for something to eat, before they could continue their walk home. I got food packed from a nearby restaurant and went and gave it to them. Anybody looking for shelter is most welcome to get in touch with me,” he says.
Help comes from New York
Krtgrphr, a New York-based Chennaiite spent 15 hours volunteering information on the Internet Kartik, who goes by @krtgrphr on Twitter, is managing many tabs on his laptop sitting in New York. On any other day, this would seem like a normal activity for someone who is online a lot, but Tuesday night and Wednesday morning were all about offering help to strangers stranded in Chennai due to the rain. Krtgrphr (who prefers to go by his Twitter handle) has been volunteering for 15 hours non-stop so far, and is still going strong. From contributing to the document on ‘#ChennaiRains Resource Center’ (chennairains.org) to just as simply spreading the word by retweeting important information and sharing important numbers, the 29-year-old researcher for IBM is making a difference, just like many others on popular social networking sites.
“There’s so much to do behind the scenes; we’re all just a bunch of people who have time on our hands,” he says. On Twitter, trying to find information on what was going on in Chennai, krtgrphr admits that he was feeling helpless about not being able to “effect change on the ground. So you try to do anything you can.”
While a lot of people have opened up their homes, some have started distributing food packets, water and clothes in their areas. How can people sitting at home help? “They can help us right now by connecting those without connections or power or battery to rescue services, food, shelter etc.
And help anyone you see around,” he urges. As a former resident of Chennai, krtgrphr is one of the many who has used social media to effect change for the good. “It’s the participants that make Twitter what it really is.”
Fishermen sail in to help
The fishermen of Chennai are rowing their boats in the flooded streets of the city to rescue those who are stranded. Boats from places such as Kasimedu, Kottivakkam Kuppam, and Kovalam are being transported in trucks along with fishermen-volunteers to the flood-hit regions. “We rescued some 400 people since morning,” says Selvam, a fisherman from Kovalam. A trained life-guard and surfer, Selvam reached Pallikaranai early in the day along with 18 men from the fishing village.
“We’ve brought three fibre boats, each of which can carry 18 people,” he calls out on the phone from the rescue site over the sound of ambulance sirens. “Those we ferried to safety are all from settlements along the Pallikaranai marsh; they’ve lost everything.”
Selvam and team have put in place a well-planned rescue operation. “The moment we help people into our boats, we row towards safe zones that our men have identified. They wait there for us along with a local who guides us,” he explains. Fisherman Mohan from Kottivakkam also had an early start as he made his way in his fibre boat to rescue those who were stranded. “A lot of men from the kuppam have gone along with him,” says his wife Nithya. “They’ve taken several boats with them… I hope they’re all safe.”
M.D. Dayalan, president of the Indian Fishermen Association, says that Kasimedu alone has offered 40 boats for rescue work. “Our men are coordinating with the Fisheries Department. Boats from as far as Neelankarai and Kanathur are in the city, helping people in low-lying areas.”
Restaurants spring into action
With rescue efforts pouring in, some of the restaurants in the city have also sprung into action. On Tuesday night Japtej Ahluwalia and Nikesh Lamba of Double Roti offered complimentary meals at their outlets in Neelankarai and Cenotaph Road. “Quite a few families passing by stopped for a bite. A lot of cyclists and two-wheeler riders came in too for a quick hot meal,” says Japtej. With the inner roads of Neelankarai flooding, more people ended up in that outlet. Maggi was the most popular dish followed by burgers and sandwiches.
Old Madras Baking Company (OMBC) too welcomed wet stranded passersby for a hot cup of tea/coffee and some sandwiches at all their outlets. Sandy’s, Ox and Tomato and OMBC are open to accommodating people to spend the night there as well. “On Tuesday night about six people spent the night at Sandy’s in Ganapathy Colony,” says Mansi Sandesh Reddy. Tryst cafe put together food boxes to be dispatched to people in need.
Anita Ratnam, classical and contemporary dancer-choreographer
Her house is full of people; just waking up to steaming cups of tea after a long, frightening night. “I was on my way to the airport with a group of ten dancers yesterday to catch a flight to Thailand for a contemporary dance festival. We got into the car at 8 p.m., and eventually gave up because we could not access the airport. We got home at midnight, and on the way I saw eight to nine people huddled under a big tree outside my house. It was terrible,” says Anita.
She responded by opening her home to as many people as she could house, a total of 18, including all the dancers. “I also handed out everything I could: towels, blankets, T-shirts… I completely cleaned out the fridge,” she says, “We slept on every available surface, just using cushions, quilts and all my shawls… I didn’t think about it, I just did it. And that’s how the city is responding to the rain.”
She adds, “We are part of a momentous disaster. Whatever we can do, we do. At least this rain has shown one thing about our city: we are extremely hospitable: warm, welcoming and trusting. I’m not surprised people are opening their homes. Remember in Tamil custom we never say goodbye – we say ‘vaanga’, please come.”
“I would have loved to see the glittering establishments of this city throw open their lobbies as well. When 9/11 happened in New York, all the five star hotels ran ads saying, ‘Please come in’. They opened soup kitchens. Here it is the individual citizens who are reflective of the spirit of the city. It is in crisis that character emerges.”
Sam Paul, lawyer and entrepreneur
On Tuesday, as flood waters rose in and around Chennai, Sam Paul rounded a group of friends and family members and started a rescue service. They split into teams and went about rescuing marooned families, supplying food, medicine and offering shelter. Sam’s house as of now is hosting four families. “We rescued a family from Perambur where the water level was 12 feet. Two grandparents and a grandson. We even rescued a dog. Our friends too have opened up their houses for those stranded,” he says.
Till about 7.30 am on Wednesday Sam, Lenin Paul, Ajit Sigamani and Jose Sigamani drove through Mudichur, Velachery, Guduvanchery, Madipakkam and Tambaram getting stranded people out.
Pleased with how people from the city are banding together to lend support, Sam says activist Abdul Ghani and his team too are doing good work. “They even rescued a pregnant woman, who was then admitted to SRM hospital where she delivered a baby,” he says.
In addition Sam’s restaurant chain of Jonah’s is cooking and supplying food for 300 people.
The initiative has grown with more people joining in as volunteers and shortly a Facebook page titled Chennai food, rescue and shelter will be up to spread the message and services.
Murthy Megavan, fisherman and surfer
“Our Covelong boys team helped the stranded during the floods by using whatever was available such as kayaks, catamarans and fishing boats. We rescued around 200 girls from hostels and also other college students. We had fun doing it – clowned around a bit by taking advantage of the empty toll booths.”