Earthquakes, fires or floods – How Chennaiites can lend a hand in times of disaster

Having a robust disaster management plan that involves training of residents as first responders is the need of the hour in Chennai.

Chennai had an earthquake scare on February 22nd, where people in Anna Nagar and Anna Salai alleged that they felt mild tremors. This triggered a panicked reaction among the people who came running out of their buildings and waited on the streets till they felt safe enough to return indoors. But the incident turned out to be a false alarm.

However, if there is an actual emergency, how many of us know what needs to be done?

Having a robust disaster management plan and training residents to be aware and equipped for emergencies becomes a pressing need in the era of climate change and increasing man-made emergencies. 

Disaster management training can reduce damage in Chennai

“With the city growing exponentially, in terms of both infrastructure and population, it is important to have a disaster management plan to handle any emergency without doubt or fear,” says Rajamanikam Muruganandh, the Capacity Building and Training Specialist of the Commissioner of Revenue and Administration and Disaster Management. 

The department aims to sensitise residents on preparedness when disasters strike. With this goal, a three-day training programme for residents, who are the first responders to a disaster, was organised. 

This training was carried out for zones in South Chennai and will be done for other zones of the Greater Chennai Corporation soon. 

The programme’s goal was to show the first responders the ropes on how to handle disasters and emergencies decisively. Post their training, the participants are expected to communicate information and updates to and from their neighbourhoods during emergencies. 

“This can reduce the impact of disasters by a maximum of 40% by preventing injuries and casualties,” says Rajamanikam. 

Even though there are mobile applications like the TNSMART app to provide real-time data and warnings to our mobile phones, network issues arise during grave disasters. Therefore, one cannot depend on just mobile phones or the internet to communicate emergency messages and must learn to communicate without it. 

“For instance, during the 2015 floods, landlines and mobile phones were not working. Our staff used walkie-talkies to report to the control room from the affected areas. Many residents voluntarily pitched in to help us out. They were using clapping and whistling techniques (both by instrument and mouth) to help in reaching out,” recalls Rajamanikam, adding that it is always good to learn some basic disaster management methods.

chennai disaster management
Training on disaster management is to be held across zones in Chennai. Pic: Geetha Ganesh

Importance of local volunteers in the face of disasters in Chennai

Naresh Kumar of the Tamil Nadu Disaster Response Force (TNDRF) says that the main work of the First Responders in each ward is to alert the local officials of any emergency and to assist the TNDRF and NDRF during any emergency as the DRF team may not be familiar with the local area, topography, low lying and vulnerable spots. 

“We lost our personnel recently during one such rescue who was not provided with the basic information about the lake, its depth, and the surroundings in another city in TN. If there were locals or first responders, he would have been alive as the locals have more in-depth knowledge of the area than any others that would have given him enough time to carry extra safety equipment,” he adds. 

“I would not have taken up social activity if the fire accident I was in made me suffer mentally and physically for more than six months had not happened,” says a businessman Abilash Kumar.

Ever since his accident, he has endeavoured to spread awareness about fire safety and other disaster preparedness in his ward. 

S Parameshwaran, a college student and a social activist from Nungambakkam, who was in attendance at the training, says, “Fire safety drills and prevention of fire accidents at houses and public places were taught so clearly that even an illiterate person could be a first responder during such emergencies. It was interesting to learn new things. After the third day, I enrolled as a fire safety volunteer with the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services Department. I am happy to learn a few immediate steps which can be taken during such emergencies to prevent major accidents.”

Read more: Councillor talk: Sewage and stormwater drains key focus of Stella Rathna of Ward 128 – Kodambakkam

Disaster management plan of GCC

Gagandeep Singh Bedi, Commissioner of Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) and the officer responsible for disaster mitigation of Chennai city, says, “Disaster management is a complex exercise which involves coordinated and combined efforts of various departments like GCC, Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB), Tamil Nadu Police, Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services and Tamil Nadu Electricity Board.” 

“When we knew that a cyclone will hit Chennai, we formed a team at ward level, headed by local Assistant Engineers. They were coordinating with the other departments and assisted by other field-level staff in clearing the road from the blockage of fallen trees. The AEs were reporting to Zonal officers, who in turn reported to the Regional Deputy Commissioner of all Central, North and South Chennai. We had video conference meetings every day to assess the ground situation and this exercise proved successful during the monsoon season and the cyclone of 2022,” he says.

To aid the corporation personnel, the civic body will be forming a ward-level disaster management structure. It will consist of assistant engineers as head of the team, who will be advised by the ward councillors. The councillors will coordinate with other line departments of CMWSSB, TNEB, Police and Fire services. 

“Based on the disaster, the heads of the team will vary,” says the Commissioner.

AEs will head operations during cyclones and other weather-related emergencies. For health emergencies, Sanitary Supervisors and Assistant Health Officers will take the lead. 

Disaster management action by ward councillors in Chennai

M Renuka, Ward 42 Councillor of Zone 4 says that her ward was affected during the cyclone and heavy rains. Her ward officials took the names of interested residents and ward committee members for the disaster management training programme.

V Kavi Ganesan, Ward 12 councillor of Zone 1 says that his ward does not have any major issues concerning disaster but three low-lying streets are prone to flooding. Interested residents and ward committee members are undergoing training in disaster management at the moment.

“As of now, two full-day disaster management sessions are over and the final one will be completed shortly,” he adds.

Amirda Varshini, Ward 126 councillor of Zone 9 which is in the coastal area says that there were a few trees which got uprooted during cyclone Mandous and she aims to do native tree plantation drives across her ward to increase the lost green cover due to cyclone.

“The major problem we faced during the cyclone was the sand that was blown away by heavy winds up to the main road which took time to clean and we had inundation in a few places which we have added in the proposal for construction of stormwater drains so that there is zero flooding in my ward,” she says.

She emphasises the need for perfect solid waste management guidelines and segregation at source to ensure that garbage from her ward does not end up in landfill polluting the environment and resulting in a climate change crisis. 

Voice for the voiceless

Arun Prasanna of People for Cattle in India (PFCI) expresses concern about stray dogs, cattle and cats are not taken care of during any disaster. “During the Chennai floods, not even a single animal was rescued by the Government agencies and they were rescued and fed only by NGOs working for animal welfare and by animal lovers.”

He suggests three points that must be considered by the authorities

  • To have an emergency response team for animal rescues
  • To arrange for a makeshift shelter for cattle and dogs across all zones where they can be housed safely
  • To provide the animals with dry food, fodder, hay, and water and have them released at the same place once the situation becomes normal

“As the animals get disturbed and distressed during any natural calamities, it becomes the main duty of humans to take care of them,” he adds.

Read more: Pandemic blues: Animals in wildlife facilities in Chennai need your help

Building resilient city

Vinod Kumar, an architect and urban planner, says, “There are only macro-zonal level and structural guidelines offered as far as disaster management practises of the government, particularly in long-range preparedness, considering the criticality of catastrophe vulnerability. For instance, structural design building codes and guidelines for particular seismic zones. Awareness like building contextual level guidelines that mimic and responds to the actual disaster for each zone is still missing, though.”

With climate change wreaking havoc in the world, we need to be better prepared to handle both natural and man-made disasters. Acquiring basic training and learning to work with the authorities can ensure faster action and timely intervention.

Emergency Contact Numbers : 

National Disaster Control Room – 1077

Flood control Room- 1096

Greater Chennai Corporation – 1913

Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board- 044-4567 4567 / 1916

TNEB- Minnagam – 94987 94987

Common Emergency Number – 112 (Fire, Ambulance, Police)

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  1. Raghukumar Choodamani says:

    Brilliantly articulated…answers most of the questions one would ask??

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