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Better prepared or not?

It’s been a tumultuous 12 months for the state of Tamil Nadu, especially its capital city, Chennai. After the devastating floods of December 2015, on Monday, Cyclone Vardha made landfall close to the Chennai coast, with wind speeds touching a frightening 150 kilometres per hour , allied with heavy rains. 

The cyclone lashed the coast in Tamil Nadu and neighbouring Andhra Pradesh all through Monday morning. Posts on social media have captured the roaring winds, with battering sheets of rain uprooting trees, cars and in particular instances destroying the foundations of homes across the coast. Weather officials have said the storm is expected to subside by Monday evening, even though high-velocity winds were still uprooting trees, and heavy rains continued to pound down on the northern coastal districts of Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu. 

In response to the natural disaster, the newly-minted Tamil Nadu government has sensibly announced a public holiday, with normal life thrown out of gear. The power supply was suspended in many parts of the city as a precautionary measure, while residents have been advised to stay indoors. Flights and train services have also stopped, with commercial aeroplanes diverted to nearby Hyderabad and Bangalore airports. Reports indicate that more than 16,000 people were evacuated to safety in the coastal regions of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, besides four deaths.

According to a popular Facebook page, titled Tamil Nadu Weatherman, “This is way beyond catastrophic. If December 2015 was historic floods in Chennai's history, Cyclone Vardah is the worst cyclone in Chennai history. I have no words to explain this [phenomenon].” Despite these words, its impact is yet to be fully assessed.


Is Chennai ready to deal with the fallout of Cyclone Vardah just a year after the devastating floods? According to Skymet Weather, parts of the city were already inundated with over 177 mm of rain from 08:30 am to 02:30 pm on Monday. Speaking to an Indian new publication, Meenakshi Vijayakumar, the senior officer of the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Service, claimed that the state machinery is better prepared this time. 


“We have done vulnerability mapping of areas prone to flooding, created awareness among those living in low-lying areas, created an inventory, reviewed all essential mitigation plans and replaced the equipment damaged during the flood,” she said. The senior officer goes on to add that the government had procured necessary items like inflatable rubber boats, snake-snares, buoys and life jackets while setting up over 1,000 government schools to house people during in the event of a major flood. 

The Corporation of Chennai, meanwhile, is reported to have set up temporary shelters, health centres, evacuated people from coastal settlements and deployed motors to pump out water from subways. Central and state government relief agencies are on stand-by. Despite these steps, long-term measures to contain the fallout of such disasters are imminent.  


Ground reports seem to indicate that Cyclone Vardah has once again exposed the frailties of the city, which was swamped by rising water levels this time last year. After the floods of December 2015, many column inches were dedicated to the poor state of urban planning. Experts had talked about the encroachment of water bodies and the consequent blocking of natural water flow by allowing construction of buildings. In anticipation of the monsoon, authorities had cleared storm water drains months ago. Many residents from low-lying areas, however, have reported that the silt was not removed on war-footing. 

Most of the silt has now recollected back into the drains. Extensive measures like dealing with the encroachments on Pallikaranai marshland and other water bodies by private and government entities have not begun. 

Authorities in India’s fourth largest metropolis have allowed construction over all but 27 of its 650 buffers and reservoirs. Unsurprisingly, the worst-affected areas in the city during last year’s floods included the recently constructed high-tech corridor for multinational companies. Across the city, 
multi-storey residential and industrial structures are built over what was once a lake, tank, canal or a river only 20 years ago. 

Authorities are yet to address these concerns in any significant manner, despite Chennai’s vulnerability as a coastal city. Moreover, authorities have not stepped up on infrastructural provisions to facilitate the flow of rainwater into the ground to replenish the groundwater. Despite government-sponsored rainwater harvesting measures, residents are yet to inculcate best practices. The economic impact of a potential natural disaster cannot be overstated. Chennai is home to major automobile manufacturing and IT hubs.  
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