Grief, Pride & Hope In My Submerged City

Its been eerily silent this past week. I normally revel in the quiet of my neighbourhood, but this is the silence of devastation. Of a city knocked to its knees. 

I miss the sounds I whined about. Of engines backfiring in the distance. Of the howling of strays or the keening of koels that shake me from my sleep at dawn. Heck, I even miss the carol singers from the hostel behind our apartment who should have been hard at their practice by now and had us climbing up our walls in frustration. 

Photo courtesy R Senthil Kumar (PTI12_1_2015_000357B) via The Indian Express
Photo courtesy R Senthil Kumar (PTI12_1_2015_000357B) via The Indian Express

The deluge was unprecedented. The effects of an extreme El Niño they say, exacerbated by encroachments into water bodies and a dysfunctional drainage system leading to the breaching of a century long record with a vengeance (1218.6mm of rain last month as against a normal of 407.4mm, and an additional 374mm on Dec 1 alone!). Further compounded by the letting out of water from dangerously full reservoirs into rivers already in spate.

The destruction that followed was brutal: Over 300 lives lost and close to two million rendered homeless. With buses, trains and flights cancelled and our brand new airport (inexplicably built over the flood basin of the Adyar river!) closed, Chennai was effectively marooned.

I can’t help feeling a certain amount of guilt over the fact that we survived this disaster unscathed, situated as we are in one of the few pockets of the city that lies on higher ground and at a safe enough distance from any of our water sources. We experienced no water logging, no outages of power, no drop in connectivity! 

Many friends didn’t fare as well. One couple had to be evacuated by the army from their inundated building. Another, out to drop her daughter in school in her track pants, didn’t have time to return to even pick up more clothes or valuables. A third, whose mother was stranded alone in the worst hit part of town and who couldn’t get through to any of the official rescue numbers, set out with a lifeguard on a daring six hour boat rescue mission in the dark, while his pregnant wife tried hard to keep her panic in check until their return.

None of that compares to the fate of the millions who have lost everything in this disaster. The horrifying visuals underscore the callousness of corrupt officials, unscrupulous land developers, even irresponsible hospitals, paid for with devastating loss to life and industry. The coast guard and our armed forces came to our rescue as they always do. Our neighbours in Bangalore and Hyderabad offered unflinching support even as the rest of the country and our national media ignored us for the most part.

But it is the way the city has rallied around the victims that has been the most inspiring. Social media was effectively mobilised by volunteers across the three cities, including a couple of Tamil film stars, to co ordinate and channelise aid to the worst affected. The generous opening of doors and hearts to anyone in need was overwhelming to witness. Proof once again that humanity left to its own devices will do the right thing whether in Mumbai, or New York or Paris or Chennai. Tomorrow we might fall prey to rhetoric again and resort to our intolerant ways. But for this moment, religion, caste and creed has been set aside in shared grief and solidarity. And that, to me, holds out hope in this hopeless world.

The worst of the deluge is over…..I think. I hope!

It is threateningly dark as I write. Foreshadowing the enormity of the challenges of rehabilitation and resettlement ahead. As also keeping epidemics at bay. But the people of Chennai will overcome this together. Of that I have no doubt.

PS: The official death toll has risen to 450. Actuals could be several hundred more.

The Chief Minister’s Public Relief Fund
ChennaiRains.Org – A crowd sourced list of available shelter

Relevant Twitter HashTags: #ChennaiRainsHelp #ChennaiMicro #ChennaiFloods

If Chennai Had Wings, She Would Be An Eagle!

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on

157 thoughts on “Grief, Pride & Hope In My Submerged City

    1. It is horrifying Dallas. And I realised suddenly that the stray animals had all vanished! The silence is unnerving. Christy (above) claims many have found shelter in sympathetic homes, but I am not so sure.

        1. Thank you. It does. Christy has been actively tweeting about BlueCross rescues as well.

    1. Thank you Tish. We will only know the full extent of the damage when the waters recede. Much of the city is still inundated with many still to be rescued. And there is fresh rain warning for Monday! Not completely out of the woods yet.

  1. A combination of nature’s fury and human foolishness. After the waters recede, what will the situation be, Really tragic.

    1. I dread to venture a guess Mukhamani! Its true that the rain itself wasn’t preventable. But man’s contribution to the ensuing calamity is still quite huge.

    1. It is Mallee. And we should start limping back to normalcy. If we don’t receive another battering that is.

  2. Mahdu, I’m glad you and yours escaped, but so sad for the destruction wrought by the flooding. I’m glad there are many good people helping out and caring. It makes such a difference.


    1. It really does Janet. I hope we can keep up the momentum. It’s going to be a monumental task to get the entire state back on its feet again.

  3. What a terrible tragedy, Madhu. I’m relieved that you and your family are safe and unharmed, but I can imagine how you are grieving for those poor souls who have been the worst affected. I hope the rain stops soon so that clearing up operations can take place. hugs

    1. Thank you Sylvia. It rained practically all day today, although it wasn’t too heavy. We so need a reprieve.

  4. I know this is not much comfort, but CNN did a report about the flooding, so people around the world were aware of this tragedy. Stay safe.

    1. Thank you Carol. We are more miffed with our national media and our media dependent brethren! This tragedy played out over a good two weeks, but our national channels only picked it up at the tail end when they couldn’t ignore it any longer!

  5. Disasters like this cannot be prevented, but it is so sad that they are exacerbated by wrong actions and decisions. If only the same consideration and enterprise would apply in normal times.
    It is a natural, if foolish, reaction to feel guilt at being among those unscathed when a general catastrophe occurs. However, I suppose it does inspire a feeling that one should take a share of loss or discomfort by offering aid to the less fortunate.

    1. Colonel, I agree about the rain being beyond one’s control. As the loss to property. And indiscriminate land development isn’t restricted to this city alone. But loss to life could certainly have been minimised with a bit more preparedness, considering this played out over a fortnight.

      The outpouring of support is possibly a transference of guilt. But nothing we can offer seems enough somehow.

  6. You write this well, and we all understand how helpful people are when disaster comes. At least one good human trait…Hopefully things will get better when the rain stops, but diseases are a frightful danger. Stay safe, Madhu, my thoughts are with you all.

    1. Wish that good human trait could extend to good times :/

      Thank you for your concern Ann Christine. The rain is refusing to go away! Please pray that tomorrow brings blue skies.

  7. My prayers with people.. don’t know what else to say .. wish I could do something

    But many many have arisen and helped god bless them all

  8. I am pleased that you are OK, but I feel for the poor people affected by the flood. We had one here almost 5 years ago, not as bad, but bad enough. Our house was submerged to the top of the ground floor, but the house survived and we have just sold it. People came from everywhere to help those in need, just as they are doing for your city. Sometimes these things bring out the very best in people.
    I hope your city recovers.

  9. Oh Madhu! I am thinking of you and sending my support from far away. I am so glad to hear you are ok but can’t imagine how devastating the floods have been on your community. Your post was powerful. Please keep us informed of what we can do to help.

    1. Thank you Nicole. I will. The worst is over weather wise but the cleaning up and rehab is going to take a while.

  10. It’s really sad what’s happening to Chennai. The people came together and this what will make the city rise. The corrupt officials, through their ways and apathy, is a big shame. Hope the people who lost belongings and family will find strength.

  11. I’m so very sorry for the devastation, and the loss of livelihood and homes, and of course lives. And every time there is a tragedy, every time, I am moved to tears by the basic goodness of people. It’s there in every one of us. I do wish it didn’t take tragedy to bring it out in such an obvious way, but I never doubt that it’s there. I’m glad you’re safe Madhu. I’m glad to hear the people of Chennai are strong. I hope the city gets the help it needs.

    1. Thank you Alison. I hope we can draw on the collective strength we discovered to find long term solutions.

  12. On a very much smaller scale the wind and rain is playing havoc with lives in the north west of the UK, Madhu, but it must be shocking to have this on your doorstep and to know how lucky you have been. Those poor souls! I can only applaud what you say about human nature. We have to believe in the good in us. Sending hugs!

    1. Have been reading about the UK floods Jo. Having witnessed the devastation first hand gives me a better understanding of their pain. Thoughts and prayers with all affected. Hugs right back 🙂

    1. The thought is all that counts Meenakshi. Hugs 🙂

      Glad you all are at least attempting to do something about the poisonous air you breathe! Hope it works.

  13. It’s tragic how El Nino has caused floods in my home country while thousands of miles away, here in my current adopted country of south africa it has caused the worst drought in 30 yrs.
    Praying that things get better in Chennai and hats off to the people. Have been reading about so many messages on facebook regarding rescue and help by the common people. When nothing else remains, humanity prevails.

    1. What can I say, the weather seems to be taking its cue from the crazy inhabitants of this planet! Thank you for your prayers. The stories of ‘everyday heroes’ have been pouring in. That’ the one good take away from this tragedy.

    2. Hi Namz; many credible authorities have enough proof to conclude that, like Madhu implies, it’s not just El Nino but a sign of how our climate is breaking down under the weight of an inappropriately organized industrial world. Whether we can adapt quickly enough to these increasing sever and ever more frequent disasters will determine if, as you imply, humanity can prevail.

  14. Happy to hear that you;re ok but it’s sad to hear about many, many lives are affected by the floods. I hear from the news that the waters are receding but the worst part is cleaning and rehabilitating the city. I’m hoping no outbreak of diseases. Take care, be safe.

    1. The weather has improved remarkably, thank heavens! Tackling the ‘worst part’ is going to be a hard task. Thank you very much for your concern Kat.

  15. I have to ignorantly say that I had no idea you’d been deluged this badly. Of course, I see snippets of the news from around the world and knew there’d been heavy rain and some flooding, but your news seems to have coincided with some shootings and bombings, and as we (unfortunately) know here in the US, some parts of the world and certain kinds of tragedies get differing amounts of attention in our daily news. Thanks for not only informing me more fully but letting your blogging friends know that you are OK! I love your positive, hopeful perspective on events.

    1. Thank you Lex. I don’t blame you. And I don’t think that kind of media behaviour is exclusive to the US. I just hope we can channel our new found cohesiveness to usher in lasting political change. Not holding my breath though.

    1. Thank you dear Upasna. It felt strange to have no inundation in our area while the rest of the city, including the poshest parts, was engulfed by flood waters. That’s because the flooding wasn’t caused by rain, but the opening of sluice gates.

    1. Grazie Popof. Its been bright and sunny for the past few days and on the surface the city is limping back to near normalcy. Sadly, those affected are going to take a long while to get their lives back on track.

  16. I didn’t know about this Madhu and I’m sorry to learn that so many people are struggling. Your people are incredibly resourceful and they will prevail. My thoughts and prayers are with Chennai.

  17. It seems that we have not learned with all our knowledge to tame nature. I remember that before I arrived in India 1965 the dam that serves Pune burst because of extreme rain conditions and it swept houses and people away with the torrent sweeping through the city. Many lives were lost. And living in Bombay (now Mumbai) saw the streets of much of the Island under water waist deep shutting parts of the city down for days after extended heavy rain and high tides combined. I remember not being able to get out of our apartment. The danger was that sewer covers in the streets were thrown off by back pressure in the deluge and those attempting to walk through the flood would often disappear. My heart goes out to those affected by this calamity.

    1. No we never learn Ian. This time it might have been the delay in opening sluice gates that compounded the tragedy. And inadequate warning!

  18. I heard about the heavy rains and was wondering whether it, too, was connected to the El Nino that is playing havoc here in the Americas as well. Glad to hear you are safe – this will take a long time to clean up. So very sorry to hear about the people who died and the many more who are homeless.

    1. Thank you Anette. We are hearing so many terrible stories from friends and acquaintances with whom we had lost phone connection. But at least they had upper floors and terraces to escape to.

  19. Oh very heartbreaking to see and read about this flood, Madhu – you all, and the people of Chennai and surroundings are in my thoughts and prayers… *hugs

  20. Madhu, that is just an horrible experience for you and your community to go through. Disasters like this bring people together, in sharing and mourning, and getting creative how to help our each other to survive and rise again. Your post tells more than any news. Namaste

  21. It was difficult to ‘like’ this one, I did so only to send you and your city love and lift you up. I will keep you in my heart, hoping for you recovery and watching for how we can help.

  22. It has been shocking and surreal to see the images of the disaster. I still find it hard to believe that Bama and I were in Chennai right between the two deluges – it makes me wonder what we might have done to help had we come several days later. Madhu, thank you for keeping us informed while broadcasters and papers have turned their attention elsewhere. This is a fitting tribute to Chennai, its people and the resilience of the human spirit.

    1. Thank you James. Bama and you were so fortunate not to have been among the 700 stuck in the airport without food and water just two days after your departure. Finding our collective strength and humanity might be one of the good things to have come out of this devastation. Now to find someone with vision to lead us……

  23. Madhu, I’m so sad and sorry to hear about the devastation your city has suffered. As always, you write with beautiful insight and compassion. Thanks for updating us on your situation. I wish all the best for you, your friends, and neighbors. ~Terri

    1. Thank you very much Terri. It feels surreal sitting around witnessing the untold damage suffered by so many friends. A few in the poshest areas of town! The vast majority of poor have fared far, far worse.

  24. Media (here in Europe) has not managed to convey the extent of the disaster. If it was reported at all. The ordeal of the city and its people sounds really shocking, I hope that the worst is over for you

    1. The official account is shocking enough Freddy. The reality is far worse. At least the rains have stopped mercifully.

  25. Our thoughts and prayers are with all Chennaiites. It’s very encouraging to see how Bangalore and Hyderabad help Chennai by sending supplies. This kind of moment shows us that humanity is not all lost, there’s still hope, and my hope is that Chennai can see clear, sunny days again very soon. Once the sun comes, it’s time for all stakeholders to really start building the city in a much more sustainable way.

    1. Thank you Bama. It’s been mercifully clear and sunny for the past several days. Without the weather improving cleaning up would have been that much more difficult. We hope too that more though is put into rebuilding the city. But we also know the brevity of human memory.

  26. Oh, Madhu—I am so sorry. I didn’t even know. I haven’t read the paper much of late. You’ve done a beautiful job on this—it has me almost in tears. My heart will be with you all.

  27. Thank you for sharing this story, as tragic as it is. Learning from gifted writers like you is always the best way to gain an understanding of what’s really happening around the world. Hoping for your continued safety and the welfare of Chennai. Namaste, Madhu.

        1. Frankly I wasn’t sure….there’s a lot of prickly reaction to our ire doing the rounds 🙂

          You’re right, this disaster has proved the relevance of social media beyond a doubt. A friend who spoke to one of the army teams claims they said they had never been on a rescue mission before where volunteers outnumbered victims! Wouldn’t have been possible without the instant reach of Twitter and FB.

  28. Chennai has gone through one hell of a period, but I’m sure it’s going to rise up stronger.
    It makes me so proud to see all the people coming together in this difficult time.
    I hope this unity lasts and some significant changes are undertaken so as to prevent any of the cities to go through such a horrific situation.

  29. This is indeed sad. I hope things are getting better there. I heard it has begun to dry up. But I also heard that rains have been predicted yet again. The people in Chennai have helped each other a lot and that is how, many of them have been saved. I am so glad to have witnessed the love, humanity and kindness in people all around.

    At the same time, I pray that the rains do not pour again. Hope things become normal soon. Take care.

    A Well wisher

    1. Thank you very much for your concern and prayers Ranjini. The weather has improved dramatically since, thank God!

  30. Salute to the Indian Army what they did in last couple of days. I think time has come to deep drive on the root cause of recent past flood and natural disaster in India and surrounding country. Global warming and unplanned city is the main key according

    1. The army was called in late. It did its job and we are grateful as always. But it is the ordinary citizens who are the real heroes here. The youth who waded in to help the needy and the poor fishermen who risked their boats and their livelihoods without a second thought. Thank you for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts.

  31. Its slowly getting back to normal I should say…we had to see something of this magnitude, this calamity and loss of life, for people to come together…It was very touching and scary both at the same time.

  32. #PrayForChennai
    I feel very sad because of the disasters going on in our country(India) from past few years; first the cloud burst in Uttarakhand, later an earthquake hits Nepal and few parts of india and the recent flood in Kashmir, and now the flood in Chennai! My prayers are always with those people who are suffering from this and who are homeless. My condolences to the families who lost their near and dear ones, May their soul rest in peace! I salute to the Indian Army, they way they have saved the lives of people and once again they have made our country proud of them. /#PrayForPeace #SaluteIndianArmy

    1. Thank you for your prayers. Not to belittle the contribution of our armed forces, which is always stellar, but the true heroes in this instance are the ordinary people who risked their lives and livelihoods to help those most in need without a second thought. It wasn’t their job, and they deserve a greater salute.

  33. I agree it was a natural disaster but i am pretty sure the situation became worse due to man-made ignorance. Nevertheless.. We shall rise.

  34. Wow I thought the rain was bad in the uk this week. Best wishes, keep strong

    1. Thank you Phil. Have been watching news of the UK floods and they look pretty bad as well. Thoughts and prayers with those affected.

  35. Reblogged this on shitijsharma24 and commented:

    when something happens at this scale you can’t help but feel puny and helpless in the face of nature learning that it is not meant to be trifled with in the process

    1. We sow what we reap Shitij. And nature has started biting back with a vengeance. It might be too late already to reverse the damage. The least authorities can do is be better prepared.

      1. Absolutely right, Madhu, I couldn’t agree with you more. …Madhu does really good reporting, even if disasters are not her specialty. I learned a lot from you and your reader’s opinions here.

  36. After disasters like these,the only thing that keeps us going is that faith in humanity is restored again..caste,creed,religion is forgotten and everybody is helping everybody,,Chennai has been brave..#salute

  37. Things are improving and it would be time to ponder in exploding cities of India.

    1. True Vama, And to set up proper systems to handle emergencies. A lot of senior government officers had close shaves themselves, so hope this is a wake up call.

  38. The scenes from Chennai are horrific, bitter reminders of the floods that we, Mumbai, went through years ago. What is worse is the recent Amma posters scene that enraged everyone recently.
    You are right, at times like these though, everybody unites forgetting the discriminations and being one race.

    Good luck to you and I hope no more disaster awaits you or anyone there

    1. Thank you MAyur, I sincerely hope so.

      I remember reading about ‘the spirit of Mumbai’ then. These tragedies reiterate the fact that people are people anywhere. The divides are created by governments and religions to control them.

  39. Devastating! Dang that mother nature. Can’t trust her. Last time I went to Goa, they had the same kind of rain…two weeks straight.

    1. I remember your’s was a much happier (for us) and hilarious account! 🙂

      The West coast normally receives a lot more rain and seems to be able to better absorb it somehow. We weren’t prepared for this kind of rain, and the mismanagement of the opening of reservoir sluice gates completed what the weather Gods left unfinished.

  40. Madhu, sorry to hear about this tragedy. 374 mm of rain is insane – I can’t even comprehend that. Hopefully things will dry out soon and get back to normal.

  41. I had no idea that you went through this Madhu. Our media here is terrible. Probably when this happened Kim K did something silly and so that required their attention. Very glad to hear you are okay. And I hope your region gets back on its feet with some help from government as well.

  42. A succinct and so straightforward account of the situation that once prevailed over Chennai… better than several media reports. Meanwhile, Doha got almost a years’ rain in a few hours recently which affected the newly built airport. Well written and thanks for taking us all through a different kind of wandering!

  43. So sorry to hear this happened. We also suffered from terrible floods but nothing like on this scale. I hope all is well now.

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