I can’t believe I am alive. When rubbles began to flow, my home was shaking and there was no elevated platform around where I could find shelter for my children. The destruction in front of me was scary, demoralising and painful. I want to rebuild my home soon and I will.”
– Jayanthi Nagappan, Survivor of the Chennai floods
Chennai, the busiest city in Tamil Nadu was as usual engrossed in its day to day activities when one of the worst disasters to have ever hit an Indian state plunged the entire city into gloomy darkness and chaos overnight. It was the 8th of November 2015 when disaster struck and flood water filled into every nook and corner of Chennai. The annual rains proved to be catastrophic claiming more than 500 lives and leaving several others injured, homeless and sick.
The Chembarambakkam reservoir, one of the city’s main water sources, had overflowed due to a constant spell of rains and flood waters reached the city in no time. People were trapped in their own homes, roads got blocked and all modes of communication got disrupted. People’s plight did not see an end; over hundreds were forced to take shelter in marriage halls, theatres, and private warehouses, changing locations from time to time. Many had no access to safe drinking water and food. The shelter tents were overcrowded with hundreds of infants and children wailing in hunger. Reaching anywhere was impossible, least rescuing loved ones; stories of children drowning, of families who had come on road were everywhere.
Prompt in responding to the call of humanity, Smile Foundation’s Disaster Response Team was on the ground almost immediately, getting in touch with its local NGO partners on the ground, many of whom had suffered damage too. Need assessment was conducted to understand the most urgent requirements of the affected populace, and consequently Phase I of the highly intensive relief and rehabilitation interventions was initiated
Phase I – Intensive Relief Operations A thorough assessment was done by the Disaster Response team on the ground that identified water contamination as a major issue, which could lead to outbreak of water-borne diseases. Hence, the first priority of the team was to mobilise safe drinking water in large quantities, along with dry and packaged food.
But the challenges on the ground were immense. Uttam Kumar, part of Smile Foundation’s Disaster Response Team shares, “We were only a small team and had a task of reaching out to over lakhs of people with food and water. We did not know if we will be able to fulfil the responsibility that had been assigned to us. The incessant rain wasn’t helping. Each one of us went to a different location looking for volunteers. I was at Karaima Nagar in Kanchipuram district. I was highly doubtful that I will be able to find volunteers. But then I did not know Chennai. We were 20 people on the first day – on the fifth day, we were more than 500 in total!”
The zeal and dedication of the Smile team was matched perfectly by the local volunteers as hundreds of them got together and worked day and night to help fellow survivors. Many of them had suffered losses themselves, but it did not deter their determination. The target was to reach as many people as possible, and the team was bent on achieving it, wadding through knee deep water and carrying loads of packaged water and food. Since usage of any kind of transportation was not possible, boats were used to transport relief material to the people who were cut-off from all access to basic necessities.
Pepsi-Co Foundation joined hands with Smile Foundation to facilitate the procurement of relief material, and through their support and the relentless efforts of the volunteers, within just 10 days 100 truck load of material was accumulated and distributed, amounting to approximately 756,000 litres of water and 37,780 kg of food.
Phase II – Health Based Rehabilitation Support (Ongoing) The second phase of the rescue operations was providing Health Based Rehabilitation Support which is still ongoing in the most affected regions of Chennai. In a post-flood situation, health becomes a critical issue and an outbreak of epidemics is a fatal possibility. Children, women and elders become especially vulnerable in such situations. Hence, the most pressing need after water and food was providing the survivors with necessary medical attention.
Joining in the efforts, Smile Foundation deployed health camps and mobile hospitals to provide basic health check-ups, medical diagnosis, pathological test facilities, and free of cost medicines to the affected families. More than 10-15 health camps were conducted every day at multiple locations across the city. The situation was so critical that while under normal circumstances a mobile hospital and health camp conduct around 100 OPDs per day;
in the aftermath of the floods they were providing health services to more than 800 people every single day.
While the flood waters receded months earlier, the repercussions on health can be long-term. Even though the state’s health infrastructure is back on its feet now, it continues to be out of reach for many less-privileged families who live on the fringes of the city and have little or no access to government and private health facilities. To address this need, Smile health camps and mobile hospitals continue to provide services in the flood-affected regions. Further, there is a need to educate people on the after-effects of such disasters and how they can keep themselves safe. Thus, along with health camps, interactive activities and discussions are being held to spread awareness among communities.
More than 100,000 families have been benefitted from the relief and rehabilitation interventions, as many more continue to receive primary healthcare services. And this was made possible only through the overwhelming support of the people of Chennai. The volunteers truly became the backbone of the waterlogged city as they came out on the streets, rising up to help their fellow survivors, setting a great example of unity and solidarity.
As Sridhar Rao, Programme Officer, Smile Foundation, outs it, “People for people – I haven’t seen people helping each other, sharing stocks, giving shelter with such determination before. I am now in love with Chennai and people of this city.” This goes on to show the strength ordinary people can carry with them when united for a cause – it proves that humanity is still alive and people still care.
We salute the spirit of the people of Chennai!