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'I now understand the value of what I have been blessed with'

December 08, 2015 11:52 IST

S Saraswathi profiles the trauma faced by two families in the Chennai floods.

Image: Flood-affected people receive food packets being distributed by navy personnel in Chennai. Photograph: PTI Photo. 

The residents of Chennai have been reeling under the incessant rains that battered the coast of Tamil Nadu this last week. Though most of the city was submerged under water, areas like Velachery, Tambaram, Old Mahabalipuram Road, Anna Nagar, Koyambedu and Madipakkam were the worst hit.

Vasanthi Prabhakran, a 58-year-old retired school teacher who was forced to evacuate her first floor flat in the low-lying areas of Velachery, narrates her ordeal.

‘I stay with my husband, a stroke patient, in Tansi Nagar, Velachery.  It is a first floor apartment. There are three other units in the building. 

‘When the heavy downpour started on Tuesday, I also had my brother staying with me. He is just recovering from a multiple right leg fracture and was here to remove the cast after surgery. 

‘Since it has been raining for almost a month now, I have been quite careful in stocking up on supplies. The streets here often get flooded, and we are left stranded until the water drains out.  I had enough supplies of milk powder and other groceries and snacks to see me through a week. But what I was not prepared for was the complete shutdown of power supply.

Image: A housing complex in Velachery, Chennai. Photograph: S Saraswathi.

‘The power went off on December 1 afternoon and we were out of water on the 2nd. We could even have survived without food, but without water it seemed impossible. My neighbours from the ground floor flat had already vacated the previous day. The four feet compound wall was completely submerged and water had entered their flats. The meter box and pump shed were also under water. I tried trapping some rain water, even left some buckets on the terrace, but that did not help much.

‘By Thursday morning, my brother and husband began to get worried.  The only way to the main road was through the many boats that were continually ferrying people from the different flats in the area. Most of them had vacated. The water was chest high and continuing to rise. My brother finally convinced me to travel to Coimbatore with him.

‘We waited almost three hours for the boat to pick us up. There were so many people waiting to be rowed.  It was late afternoon by the time we got to the main road. Since both my husband and brother were unable to move on their own, they had to be carried down. But the boatmen were very helpful. Reaching the main road, I was shocked to see the number of people who were stranded with no place to go. 

‘I count myself lucky that I was able to afford a hotel. We moved to the Westin Hotel in Velachery, a few kilometres away, and were safe and dry for the rest of the day.  Early on 4th morning, we took a cab and left for Coimbatore. 

‘Since the Villupuram roads were flooded, we travelled via the Poonamallee high road. After about an hour’s travel, we finally connected with my children. My older daughter is in London and the younger one in Dubai. For three days they had been desperately trying to reach us. All the news on television had them worried. 

‘Fortunately my story has a good ending, but there are so many who are still at the mercy of relief camps, away from their homes with little children in cramped, unhygienic places. My heart goes out to them. I pray things get better for them soon.’ 

Karthikeyan is a 31-year-old cab driver from Rajaji Nagar, Madipakkam. His house was flooded when the excessive water from the Chembarambakkam lake, the city’s main reservoir, was discharged late last Tuesday.

Image: Makeshift boats ferrying people in the Chennai floods were a common sight. Photograph: S Saraswathi.

‘This last week has been one of the worst in my life. I have never been this scared before. With two little girls and my aged mother and wife, I have been camping at my friend’s house since Tuesday. 

‘It was only God’s grace that helped me reach the safety of his house that fateful night. Barely two hours after we had arrived, the Chembarambakkam lake breached its banks, flooding our entire street so rapidly that had we been in my house it would have been a total disaster.  

‘Just the thought of what could have happened sends shivers down my spine.

‘After the heavy rains on Tuesday morning, the power supply was cut off around 3.30 in the afternoon. Late that evening, sitting in the dark, we were wondering if we should stay or leave the house. The water on the streets had risen a few feet and had begun to enter our gates. 

‘Within a few hours we noticed some water seeping into the house through the doors. We became scared and hurriedly gathered a few clothes, got into the cab and drove out into the streets, which was already under several feet of water. My friend stays just a few streets away, but in a bigger apartment and on the first floor. That seemed like our only way out. It was impossible to travel any further. The situation was getting worse by the minute. 

‘With great difficulty we reached his place. Water had already entered the ground floor flat and the people there had left earlier that day. But now it was too late and too dark to go anywhere else. We hoped and prayed that we would be safe.

‘In less than two hours, to our greatest shock we heard that the lake had breached. There seemed to be chaos all around, but we could hardly see anything. Hearing the water gushing through the dark night with no clue how high or how fast it was flowing, was a terrifying experience.  It was probably a miracle that saved us. We barely slept. The next morning the water had receded a little. We could see people wading through the neck deep water. 

‘Though it continued to rain throughout the day, surprisingly the water level receded some more. Thursday brought in some people with makeshift boats who were ferrying people across.  They got us some drinking water and snacks. 

‘Finally, on Friday, milk, bread and food packets were distributed. It was a big relief. People continued to visit over the next few days with supplies. The power was back on Saturday and mobile networks on Sunday. 

‘I visited my house on Sunday morning, and it is in a very sorry state. There is still a lot of water inside, everything in the house is soaking wet and stinking. I will have to replace everything, the bed, the TV, fridge, even my two-wheeler does not work anymore.  I have decided to leave this area and move somewhere else. 

‘The next few months are going to be a real struggle, but getting this close to tragedy, I understand the value of what I have been blessed with.’ 

S Saraswathi in Chennai
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