Thought I'd share my thoughts on the #ChennaiFloods with you - I wrote this in my personal journal and I've added a short video that I took as we were evacuating from my apartment. #Grateful.
We didn't have much time after we realized the extent of the damage. Most of us insisted that this was just like the others. The storm would come, chaos would ensue, and after a few hours and a few burnt out candles later, normalcy would return. But this time it was different. In The Human Response to Disasters written by Shunji Mikami, Mikami writes of something called the "Normalcy Bias" which explains the tendency of humans to interpret events of daily life as just that - in line with the daily context. For example, in the summer of 1982, there was a large flood in the Japanese city of Nagasaki which killed some 300 people. The people there had experienced smaller versions of the same flood every summer, therefore interpreting the flood as another "ordinary inundation". When water rose two meters in the span of 30 minutes, victims had already lost the time it would have taken to evacuate to safety.
For the people of Chennai who experience extended power outages and mild flooding on a seasonal basis, the forecast didn't seem out of the ordinary. We had just plowed through a month of storms and we had learned to cope by making sure electronics were plugged into voltage stabilizers, stocking up on canned and dry foods, charging our cell phones in cars, and doing our best to continue with our daily lives. By the time we realized that this time was different, we were in thigh-high water trying to evacuate to higher ground.
Most of us can't comprehend a completely disconnected life at this point in our modern world, and I was certainly not prepared for it. We had no electricity, no cell phone network, no internet, and therefore, no news. Because many houses in Chennai require an electric pump to pump water from the tank to our faucets, after two days of no electricity we had no clean water. That meant that after walking through thigh-high sewage for supplies, we couldn't even bathe. Since we had no information, we certainly didn't know that the TamilNadu government had started releasing water from the dam, 30 litres per second, into the city. Water began to fill our neighborhood in a matter of minutes. The cost of physical copies of newspapers - from whoever was still getting them - skyrocketed. And since trucks couldn't bring merchandise to their stores, our neighborhood quickly ran out of produce, food, water, and candles. After a day or two of rain, the airport closed down, and within 24 hours of water being released from the dam, entire sections of the city - including escape routes out of Chennai - were under water. Rumors started circulating that bridges had begun to collapse, and large chunks of pavement started to shift and warp under the water. The government then began to block roads that were considered unsafe. The streets began to fill with crowds; an exodus on foot; walking to safety. Suddenly there were very few options other than to get to a dry place, stay together, and wait it out. For the first time, I realized the extent of our dependency on technology and modern conveniences.
The 7 of us - Sai, Akshay, Isha, Shashwat, Nikhita, Eldho, and I huddled together in candlelight discussing our options. Our psychological states ranged from "apocalypse approaching" to complete refusal to acknowledge that anything was different. I was somewhere in the middle. The pessimists ranted on and on about the destruction, the potential dangers, and the monetary consequence on their pockets. The optimists reflected quietly over how lucky they were. And everyone in the middle did their best to stay in the moment. Without distractions, we were suddenly able to cook, laugh, eat, and talk. We actually listened to each other. We waited together. We held our breath together. And we learned together. What started as something quite scary and uncertain quickly turned into something... precious.
Increasingly, we heard the sound of people out in the street. Worried that something had happened, we jumped up to look out the window and realized that what we were hearing was laughter. There were hoards of people shouting, laughing, and playing in the water. I suppose they thought, "well, what the hell, why not?" And when we went out, we could feel a vibrancy about the city. There was an underlying energy; a subtext that said, "we're all in this together." Auto and cab drivers kept their charges low in order to help people get to safety in a place notorious for drivers ripping people off. Toll roads stopped taking money. People with large vehicles started picking up strangers and escorting them to safety. Kids were dancing in the streets and parents were spending time with their families. And although the class and caste differences in India are otherwise crippling, a disaster like this allowed people to press the pause button on discrimination and for a moment, help each other. I thought, is this what it takes for people to be human?
Eventually, the rain slowed to a drizzle and then finally stopped. It stopped throughout the night. And then the next day. Water started receding and some areas got electricity and mobile network back. Through friends, we heard that not only were various air-borne, water-borne and vector-borne diseases sprouting up all over the city, but that another cyclone was supposed to hit that evening and slam us with a weekend full of water. By this time I had developed a mild fever. I was cold and dirty, with an incessant cough that was getting worse by the day.
It was time to go.
I had left my car at my apartment because it was the safest place for it to be. Although most of the water had receded when we went back, it was clear that water in that area had risen another 2 feet after we left, judging from the marks on the car's exterior. Inside, there was stagnant calf-level water. Before leaving, we had tied plastic bags around the exhaust pipe with rubber bands to keep water out, but they were nowhere to be seen. We started the car and pumped out most of the water that was trapped in the exhaust pipe by revving the engine on neutral. Thankfully, the car started smoothly and we were able to pack a few things (including my cats!) and leave Chennai by taking the Poonamalle highway - the only available route that wasn't under water.
We didn't stop the entire way to Bangalore. The storm started the minute we got in the car at 5 pm, and at times the rain was so heavy we couldn't see 3 feet in front of us. But somehow, we got to Bangalore in record time and were welcomed by Sai's warm and generous family who have been nurturing us with excellent home-cooked food, medicine, and love. Thankfully, my fever is gone and my cough is slowly subsiding. #SometimesTheresNothingBetterThanAuntieLove
My experience lies in the space between adjectives. I can come out of this with a few thoughts: 1. I am eternally grateful to be in the position in life to be able to choose (to some extent) how a natural disaster effects me and I cannot express how thankful I am for everything I have (and still have. Thankfully the floods didn't destroy our music equipment!) 2. I am also thankful for everyONE in my life who helped us and are helping us in this time of need. 3. I am genuinely astonished by the human race and our innate ability to persevere. I am now more certain than ever that happiness, and the ability to live a fulfilling life is a deep-rooted and intrinsic human trait.