WHEN THE first gusts of Cyclone Vardah reached Chennai’s coastline last Monday, strewing the streets with uprooted trees, Tamil Nadu braced for a repeat of the horrors of 2015. Just 12 months ago, large chunks of the city had resembled a disaster zone, with 300 deaths, over 1.27 lakh people evacuated and thousands of homes inundated by the heavy rains and floods.
But this time, Chennai and the northern districts hit by the cyclone appear to be climbing back to their feet much faster — not quite there, but nearly so. The big shift, say officials, was thanks to the lessons learnt from 2015.
For instance, as soon as the first warning came in this December, key departments activated a software prepared after last year’s floods and containing a checklist of emergency measures. And the government, hobbled by a lack of transparency and clogged communication channels last year, was much more nimble with ministers and top officials actively directing relief work and activating a series of pre-set emergency measures.
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The Indian Express spoke to top officials, ministers and politicians from the ruling AIADMK to discuss the aftermath of the two cyclones and what happened in between. They said that the administration had “learnt its lessons from the failure of 2015”.
They were ready
In December 2015, the regional meteorological department had sent multiple warnings to state and central agencies, including one alert of “heavy to very heavy rainfall” a week before the floods hit Chennai on December 1. The state responded by declaring a holiday for schools and colleges, and nothing much else — no circulars, no advisories.
This time, too, several alerts were sent, including one warning of the formation of a cyclonic storm off the south Andaman coast on December 7, five days before it hit Chennai. “Initially, the cyclone’s fury was spread across Sriharikota and Puducherry. Seven hours before, in the early hours of Monday, we sent the accurate forecast, excluding Puducherry from the danger zone. But the Tamil Nadu government was well-prepared,” said Thambi Narayanan, deputy director-general, regional meteorological department, Chennai.
Officials said the government immediately deployed maximum force within the projected radius, issued public warnings, declared holidays for schools and colleges, and sent a separate circular on Sunday evening to private firms to shut or allow people to work from homes. At the same time, ministers and senior officials conducted a series of meetings to discuss emergency measures.
Plans in place
“A standard Operating Procedure (SOP) was followed this time. A software prepared after the last flood with a checklist of emergency measures helped alert all stakeholders. Revenue Secretary Satya Gopal was the nodal officer of this system and the software was designed in such a way that it sent alerts of lapses, too,” said a senior secretary in the state government.
“The software also had a checklist of departments and agencies to be consulted in an emergency situation unlike last year when the police, NDRF or other central agencies did not have any clue about what was happening on the ground until the city was submerged,” said another official.
“In less than 12 hours, over 4,000 municipal and electricity workers started arriving in Chennai from various districts. We brought around 2,000 municipal workers, at least 200 each from other corporations in the state, to Chennai for cleaning and relief work. The electricity department brought in 2,000 workers, with over 10,000 electric poles and at least 100 transformers fully damaged. Besides, we had ordered around 50 transformers from Karnataka as some 50 more were already in stock,” said a senior state government official.
“We cleared all the highways connecting Chennai before the first night itself. Major routes were diverted,” said Tamil Nadu DGP T K Rajendran, who was present on the ground. It also helped that state police had already procured key relief equipment, including searchlights and wood-cutters. Personnel from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and state disaster management personnel were deployed much in advance, said officials. And, Army and Navy personnel were on standby following clear communications from the state government.
Quick on their feet
Asked about last year, where a multi-sectoral response system was missing, another minister blamed it on “zero transparency on procedures to follow”. “The system was such that even senior secretaries were reluctant to go beyond their jurisdiction, even in extreme situations. Everyone waited for directions,” said the minister.
This time, government officials said, Education Minister M F Pandiarajan had the absolute authority to take decisions on declaring holidays for educational institutions.
“The direction was clear that we shouldn’t be running for permission for everything from the party bosses and had to ensure that officials got absolute freedom,” said the minister. “From the Chief Minister to ministers, MLAs to government secretaries, local officials to muncipal and electricity workers, everyone was on alert last week… particularly, in areas where the cyclone was expected to make landfall,” he said.
On Monday, Power Minister P Thangamani, who was monitoring the emergency relief work in Chennai, slept overnight at the city corporation office. Municipal Administration Minister S P Velumani visited food distribution centres and temporary shelters. Health Minister C Vijayabaskar was seen on the streets, directing relief work. Chief Minister O Panneerselvam also visited at least a dozen affected locations and interacted with people.”Officials were not confused about their duties or worried about managing the flow of information. There were no territorial issues. There was absolute freedom to respond to the calamity,” said another senior government secretary, who attended over 10 disaster-response meetings with Panneerselvam and other ministers from last Sunday till Thursday.
Kept the lines open
Last year, the then Chief Secretary Gnanadesikan, Health Secretary J Radhakrishnan and senior officials were reluctant to engage with the media to share basic information or even reveal the death toll. Last week, a number of IAS officers were providing realtime information from the ground. In fact, Radhakrishnan and Revenue Secretary Gopal were seen briefing media and the public multiple times a day, apart from briefings initiated by top government secretaries.
Besides, the regional meteorological department chief, Narayanan, said that a WhatsApp group of officials was active throughout the crisis hours, assessing and sharing details of relief work.
But nothing illustrates the difference in the state’s response this time than its police force, which issued multiple alerts within hours. DGP Rajendran was personally issuing advisories to the public, at times moving around the city on a motorcycle. Last year, police did not issue a single advisory during or before the floods. No police personnel was seen at the spot when floodwaters started entering the city — many were trapped in their own homes.