Chennai floods swirl even as rain eases

Waters receded in some areas thanks to a lull in the heaviest rains in a century that have killed at least 280 people.

A woman stands at a fenced gate of a partially submerged temple in Chennai, India, December 4, 2015.  REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee
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CHENNAI, INDIA // Residents clutching babies and food thronged flooded streets in India’s Chennai on Friday, braving chest-deep water to reach high ground or heading the other way to rescue relatives still stranded days after overflowing lakes drowned the city.

Waters receded in some areas thanks to a lull in the heaviest rains in a century that have killed at least 280 people. But another cloud burst was forecast within hours and officials said brimming waterways were the main concern in the low-lying coastal capital of Tamil Nadu state.

“The rain is not a problem now, it is the overflowing river and 30 lakes that continue to flood four districts,” a senior home ministry official in New Delhi said

Despite combined rescue efforts by the military and civilian emergency services, help had yet to reach many areas and city-dwellers were growing impatient.

V Raghunathan, 60, a manager at an interior design company living in the south of the booming industrial and port city, complained about the lack of warning before floodgates were opened.

“The authorities didn’t give us adequate information about water being released from a nearby lake. Before we could take action. My car has sunk and I had to move to the first floor of my apartment.”

The Tamil Nadu public works department said it did issue warnings prior to draining the lakes, but the information apparently did not reach the public because of a breakdown in media and phone communications. The Chennai edition of The Hindu newspaper did not go to press on Thursday, apparently for the first time in 137 years.

Police and government officials said they were investigating the deaths of 14 patients on life-support after a power failure in the intensive care unit of MIOT International, a private hospital.

Military helicopters dropped food to residents stranded on rooftops in India’s fourth-largest city, previously known as Madras. On Friday, the defence ministry doubled to 4,000 the number of soldiers deployed to help the rescue effort.

The government restored some commercial flights to a naval airbase near the city of six million, but the main airport remained closed and completely awash.

Experts say the devastation was exacerbated by industrial and residential construction across flood plains and without adequate drainage in Chennai, known for its fast-growing automobile industry and IT outsourcing.

Affected carmakers such as Renault, Nissan Motor Hyundai Motor and component maker Apollo Tyres will decide on Saturday whether to resume production, whereas BMW will keep a plant closed until December 7.

Rescue teams urged people to leave inundated regions. Only roofs in some villages remained visible. Where water had receded, masses of black mud and rubbish piled up.

“We are sending technical experts and engineers who will find a solution to flush out all the flood water. It has to be drained out soon, but we don’t know how,” said the home ministry official, who was not authorised to speak on the record and asked not to be named.

Police constable P Krishnaraj loaded his wife and two teenage daughters in a cycle cart and walked behind in knee-deep water, headed for a friend’s house on dry land to escape the squalid water lapping at their ground-floor home.

A steadily rising number of families sought safety on the Basion Bridge flyover, many slum-dwellers whose homes had been washed away. They sat in the open, carrying little bundles of prized possessions — soiled rupee notes and identity cards.

A small van that arrived at the top of the flyover bearing water packets and biscuits was immediately overrun by people desperate for relief.

Rajarwadi, who sold vegetables by the roadside, managed to grab a packet of biscuits for her daughter. Her plan was to move further away to catch the next volunteer food drop.

She hadn’t seen government officials offer help to people camped out on the busy flyover on Thursday even though it was in the middle of the city.

Jose Sebastian, the head of a local construction company, said the biggest worry for his volunteer group was areas where the water level was too high for them to deliver food.

“We feel rather helpless,” he said. “We have lots of food, we have volunteers ready to go, but we don’t have the boats.”

* Reuters