Chennai floods: The day city went under, who did what — and who did not

Chembarambakkam reservoir raised its discharge suddenly on December 1 but govt failed to alert public, police or power utility.

Updated: December 14, 2015 10:52 am

On Friday, acting on a PIL, Madras High Court directed the Tamil Nadu government to submit a report on the coordination among agencies engaged in relief work in the flood-hit state, saying it was “concerned” at the lack it. In a memorandum to Governor K Rosaiah, DMK leader M Karunanidhi has alleged the same and sought an inquiry into the “mishandling” of the Chembarambakkam reservoir “causing the flood”.

Here’s what happened over four days of the flooding of Chennai.

The days & nights before

All the reservoirs that cater to Chennai and its suburbs were empty before Diwali. Consistent rains started on November 8, lasting a week, and were followed by another spell on November 23, which was not forecast. By the end of November, the level in the reservoir had reached its limit. Water in the Chembarambakkam reservoir — one of the city’s main water sources — stood at 22 ft at this time, against its capacity of 24 ft. Official data shows outflow from the reservoir, into the Adyar river, as 900 cusec then.

Pictures clicked by P S Sanjay from his terrace © P S Sanjay Pictures clicked by P S Sanjay from his terrace © P S Sanjay

It started raining again on December 1, and continued into December 2. By December 1 afternoon, the water in Chembarambakkam had swollen to 3,396 million cubic feet — almost its full capacity. Engineers started to increase the outflow.

By around 10 pm, the water was being released at 29,400 cusec into the Adyar river, which was already in spate, as engineers feared a breach of Chembarambakkam’s boundary. It took three to four hours for the water to reach the city from the reservoir 25 km away, but by midnight of December 2, land in more than a 4-km radius around Adyar, which flows through the heart of Chennai, had gone completely under.

The first warning of “heavy and very heavy rain” had been issued on November 28; the International Weather Forecast had predicted 500 mm rainfall. Amid questions why the outflow from Chembarambakkam wasn’t increased gradually from that date, Chief Secretary K Gnanadesikan issued a statement on Sunday clarifying that the Met office had given only a “very heavy rainfall” warning and never forecast 50 cm.

Chennai was already waterlogged when the discharge came at 29,400 cusec.

December 1

The house after the waters receded. © P S Sanjay The house after the waters receded. © P S Sanjay

Starting morning, Chennai received 200 mm rainfall over 14 hours. Given the advance warning, and another by the Met department on November 30, the government had declared a holiday for schools and colleges. Following an increased outflow from Chembarambakkam lake and from over 40 tanks in its catchment area, low-lying areas in the city were already swollen.

On December 1 evening, a junior engineer at Chembarambakkam sent what was to be the most critical message during those four days. His message, to the office of PWD secretary N S Palaniappan, alerted him about water being discharged at some 29,000 cusec. At 5 pm that day, a statement by the Chennai Collectorate put the release at 7,500 cusec — a not-so-alarming figure. In hours, it rose to 29,400 cusec.

“Holding the shutters any further would have breached the boundary walls of the reservoir. PWD secretary Palaniappan was alerted of the inevitable release at some 29,000 cusec, just about four hours before we released the maximum water,” said a chief engineer in Chembarambakkam.

Palaniyappan said he, in turn, alerted Chief Secretary Gnanadesikan. “Electricity, revenue, police and Chennai district administration must have been informed by his office,” he said.

Asked if the chief minister was consulted ahead of such a huge release, Gnanadesikan said, “We do review situations on a daily basis,” but added that he cannot recall any such meeting that evening.

In his statement, the chief secretary ruled out management failure and described the flooding as a rarest-of-the-rare calamity. The statement said flood warnings had already been given and an advance warning on the discharge wouldn’t have helped. He added the rules for discharge balance the requirements for a scarcity and the safety of reservoirs, and no permission was required from senior bureaucrats for the surplus discharge.

Sources in the police, Electricity Board and revenue department were, however, livid that they were not made aware of such a huge release. “As on any other rainy day, our teams did the customary evacuation of a few families from the river banks that evening,” said a revenue officer. He questioned why the excess water was released at night, catching many asleep and helpless.

An angry official, who claimed he would seek voluntary retirement, said, “They all took it lightly. At a meeting convened after the flood, members just blamed the unprecedented rain.”

A police officer said, “Had they informed us by 7 pm at least, we could have sent our men to various localities to alert residents. All stations in the city have at least four or five vehicles.”

A Coast Guard commander, whose team is equipped with choppers and divers, said the late warning damaged the choppers. “I myself got the news on TV. After the flood, the question we raised with government officials was why no one got flood alerts before the release of such a huge quantity of water. Why was the telecom department not involved in alerting the public?”

The house of Colonel Venkatesan who drowned with his wife. © P S Sanjay The house of Colonel Venkatesan who drowned with his wife. © P S Sanjay

On questions why water was not released earlier, the chief secretary said he is not allowed to speak to the media. “I cannot speak about all that. Please contact the government PRO.” The PRO said he was helpless.

The National Disaster Response Force, which had been active during rescue operations in November, was also informed late on December 1 night. “It took nearly 24 hours for them to gather the force and reach the city,” said a police officer.

A Navy officer said there was no sharing of information by the police or government. “It was the public who contacted us through journalists and our own friends about people in need of rescue.”

S Janakarajan, professor of the Madras Institute of Development Studies and president of the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies, said what happened at Chembarambakkam was a major goof-up. “There were accurate warnings of consistent and ‘heavy and very heavy rainfall’ on at least two days before the rain started. Moreover, after the goof-up was exposed… we couldn’t access metro water data from the first week of December.”

The data remains inaccessible.

December 2

In one of the most shocking deaths of the tragedy, Colonel G Venkatesan drowned inside his house with his wife in Defence Colony near Guindy. On the flooded road, another person was trying to stay afloat that night. Maharajan, a driver with a private firm, refused to leave the car behind on the road, fearing he would be sacked. “In the morning (December 2), I saw him shivering on the vehicle partially under water,” said a neighbour of Col Venkatesan, P S Sanjay.

Sanjay used a garden hose to force Maharajan off the car roof, into the water; he was eventually rescued.

Sanjay remembers rescue boats passing the area around 11 am, never reaching their lane though, and later 12 blasts, which he believes were set off by the Army as a warning.

Over the rest of the day, there was no sign of government machinery on the ground. Reports came of families of defence and police officials, including security officers of the chief minister, themselves being stranded. Communication remained down.

Health Minister C Vijaya Baskar himself turned out to rescue patients from Global Hospital. Others at Tambaram Corporation Hospital were also rescued. However, at MIOT Hospital, a premium private hospital on the banks of Adyar, a tragedy brewing since December 1 night had come to a head. On December 2 midnight, at least 18 patients in the ventilator had died of oxygen failure.

December 3

After more than 48 hours of downpour, flood waters finally started receding. Sanjay, his family, Maharajan and another neighbour were rescued on a boat. The previous night, additional Army and Navy teams had reached the city and launched more boats.

Maharajan sitting atop the vehicle he drove. © P S Sanjay Maharajan sitting atop the vehicle he drove. © P S Sanjay

Communication systems, however, remained down due to shortage of power. Government rescue efforts remained absent, and it was volunteers who led the effort.

Around 8 pm, as police were at last retrieving the bodies of Venkatesan and his wife, Health Secretary J Radhakrishnan, who had made his reputation during Tsunami relief work in Cuddalore and Nagapattinam, told The Indian Express “the situation was completely under the government’s control”.

Asked about reports of a crisis at MIOT Hospital, he said, “There is just waterlogging in the hospital and that has been cleared.”

December 4

The city woke up to reports of the 18 deaths at MIOT. Ambulances raced around the city, trying to handle reports of dead. Royapettah government hospital alone received 45 bodies, including 14 from MIOT.

Fuel supplies and public transport were partially restored, but relief work was still being led by NGOs and individuals. There was a press briefing, but relief workers remained in the dark about people in need of help. Officials admitted they couldn’t coordinate with volunteers due to lack of an order.

T K Ramkumar, a water resource management expert, says Chennai took some 30 years to reach this mess, including encroaching of the riverbed. “The fact that water discharged at 10,000 cusec after Diwali flooded the city shows the Adyar doesn’t have that so-called carrying capacity of 60,000 cusec.”