Cyclone Michaung: North Chennai people left to fend for themselves

As North Chennai residents wait for aid, the only succour in this time of need comes from a small group of volunteers toiling every day to help

Four days have passed since Cyclone Michaung caused havoc across Chennai. Yet, the people of North Chennai continue to suffer in silence simply because their mobile network connectivity is still down. With no way to reach out for help, with no electricity, no basic amenities and mainly with no aid from the government, they are abandoned to their own devices.

“Nobody came for our help. Not one person representing the government has reached out to us,” they say collectively.

In this time of despair, when the roads are inundated and the threat of health hazards looms large because of stagnant water, a group of volunteers are working overtime in these neglected areas to bring food, water and other essentials to residents.

Reality on the ground

Giving a glimpse of the situation in Vyasarpadi, Lokeshwaran, a volunteer, says that a 60-year-old woman in Third Street in Dhamodharan Nagar, who recently underwent surgery and required follow-up treatment died by suicide on December 7, when her family members went out to look for some help. “Not only are people undergoing physical distress but the aftermath of the floods also has a huge impact on their mental health,” he says.

Many patients need immediate medical help in North Chennai but are unable to avail of it. “Had we been able to reach the ‘paati’ a few minutes earlier, we could have saved her,” he shares the psyche of a volunteer who stands witness to the aftermath of the havoc.

In a similar incident, when they called the ambulance to take another senior citizen to the hospital, the ambulance driver refused to come. The family had to take their grandfather in a tri-cycle (colloquially referred to as ‘meen body vandi’) to Stanley Hospital wading through flood waters.

According to the volunteers on the ground, a few areas that are badly affected and require immediate government intervention include Kannigapuram near Otteri Nullah, areas around Captain Cotton Canal, Mullai Nagar, Dhamodharan Nagar, Vyasarpadi, MKB Nagar, Ezhil Nagar, Kodungaiyur, Kurukkupet, Kargil Nagar, Pullianthope, Pulicat, Athipattu and Pudhunagar.

As industrial waste like crude oil was allegedly released into the standing water, the residents around Ennore in areas like Kargil Nagar near Manali, where the water level is still at the chest level in a few areas and knee level in a few other areas, are forced to wade through the highly contaminated water.

Read more: As rains lash the city, North Chennai residents still await flood mitigation measures

Challenges faced by the volunteers

With no help from outside the affected areas, the volunteers are facing immense challenges on the ground. Elaborating on this, Lokeshwaran says, “The water entered my home too. However, it was more manageable there than many areas in North Chennai. I left my brother to look after my parents and I came to volunteer. For three days, my mobile was not reachable and that worries my parents but that is a small price that we pay compared to the disaster that we are in.”

“On a normal day, it takes five minutes for me to reach Vyasarpadi by foot. During the floods, it took me one and a half hours to reach other volunteers in Vyasarpadi,” he adds.

As many as 50 youngsters, who are part of the non-governmental organisation—Vyasai Thozhargal (Comrades of Vyasarpadi), are providing food, water and other basic amenities to around 800 families in JJ Nagar.

Volunteers helping people in distress during the floods
Volunteers from Vyasai Thozhargal helping people in distress amidst the floods. Pic Courtesy: Instagram page of Vyasai Thozhargal

Sakthivel, a member of Vyasai Thozhargal, says that they require at least 75 kgs of rice to serve the people in JJ Nagar alone. “After the first two days, we neither had money nor any resources to arrange for food. Then, a friend sent Rs 10,000 with which we managed yet another day. Even when there is money, we had to wade through the flooded water for 2 km by foot and carry them back,” he says.

Many people are ready to send money to help. However, they have no access to withdraw the amount or any shops nearby to buy the provisions. The volunteers had to pitch in their money, most of which was their lifetime savings.

Speaking about how they coordinated their efforts when there was no connectivity in mobile phones, Lokeshwaran says that the volunteers from outside somehow helped them with walkie-talkies to coordinate with the people outside and the volunteers inside Vyasarpadi.

“At least the volunteers of Vyasai Thozhargal are here to help the people in this area. I could not fathom the situation of the people in areas where there were no volunteers at all,” adds Lokeshwaran.

Read more: How a tuition centre in Chennai’s Vyasarpadi is helping keep children in schools

The government’s inaction and the consequences

“We have been hearing that the government is portraying as if Chennai is back to normal. What do they mean by it when we still have chest-level water in our houses? Are we not considered the people of Chennai?” ask the residents of Vyasarpadi and other areas in North Chennai, adding that just because they did not have a mobile network, they were not able to communicate their suffering.

There are four boats allocated for Zone 4 from the Fisheries department but not even one boat came to rescue the people. “After four days of the disaster, our Councillor brought us food that too in a garbage truck. We refused to take that food as we felt very disrespected,” say the residents of Ward 37 in Zone 4.

Shalin Maria Lawrence, an activist, notes, “The problem with setting a false narrative that Chennai is back to normal through mainstream media, is that even the citizens who will be forthcoming to volunteer for the relief works are not aware of the real situation. This stops the people who are suffering from getting the help that they need at the time of distress, especially when their mobile networks are down and they cannot reach anyone for help.”

She adds, “I am shocked that the authorities did not keep even basic materials and vehicles to transport them, on standby to mitigate the situation.”

Immediate needs

Speaking on the immediate needs of the people in various parts of North Chennai, Lokeshwaran says, “We cannot see North Chennai as one area. We have to decentralise the work and check for the needs in every area. The water stands at different levels in different areas. In areas where the water has receded, sanitation is the first issue to address. Since many residents lost most of their belongings in the floods, we first need to provide them with basic amenities like sleeping mats, pillows, bed sheets and grocery supplies at least for a week for each household. In areas where water has not receded yet, dry foods like bread and biscuits, drinking water cans, candles, mosquito nets, bed sheets, mats, sanitary pads, panties, diapers and milk should be supplied.”

“Even if people want to come and help, they cannot reach our area as the water is flooded in many areas on the way. They can reach out to us and we will coordinate with them to give the list of things that we need and the safe route to reach us,” says Sakthivel.

People who would like to help in any form including financial assistance and material supplies can reach out to Vyasai Thozhargal at 93445 94874

Chances of epidemic breakout and immediate need for medical camps

Shajitha from Ennore says that many residents have skin infections, especially in the leg like Athlete’s foot and require immediate medical attention. People are sleeping on the streets and in damp places. The flooded water has become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. This might lead to an outbreak of dengue or malaria.

Some sources in North Chennai said that cases of typhoid and fever were reported. The government should immediately set up medical camps to address these issues, they insist.

At this point, the least the people of North Chennai expect from the authorities is to let the people in other areas know about the real situation there. “We do not have much hope that the government is coming to our aid,” say the people of North Chennai, disheartened by the neglect.

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