It’s an odd feeling seeing Chennai and flood in the same sentence. To give a perspective on why it’s so odd…
Chennai gets rain from the North East monsoon which starts from October. Every year low pressure areas are formed above the Bay of Bengal and just as they are heading towards Tamil Nadu, they take a U turn and hit Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal. These are the regions that traditionally have flooding problems every year, while Tamil Nadu is left reeling under droughts year after year.
This year too there were no rains in sight until the end of October and everybody was bracing themselves for yet another year of water shortage. Then comes November and Tamil Nadu, more specifically Chennai was hit with one cyclone after another. This last month the rains broke all records with an unprecedented 1218 mm of rainfall, compared to 493 mm in 2009 when we last had heavy rains.
We didn’t need the records to prove how heavy the rains have been this year in Chennai. Schools, colleges and offices were closed for most part of this month. Rivers which have had more sewage than water and lakes which have been absolutely dry for more than 20 years breached their banks leading to surrounding areas being submerged, with water rising up to the 2nd floor in some places. This resulted in intermittent power cuts and limited mobile connectivity across the city. And all this happened before the December 1st deluge.
Picture of Chennai after mid-November rains
Just as the city was recovering from the last onslaught, it rained heavily non-stop for 2 days straight yet again putting pressure on the already burdened drains, bringing the entire city to a standstill on December 1st. This time the entire city had power cuts lasting from 2 to 5 days! And with mobile networks becoming weak and the landlines getting cut as well, it left the city dark and isolated. Never in the recallable memory has Chennai experienced something so catastrophic, where even the connectivity between people had been cut off completely for so long. If not for social media the entire city would have been in the dark in more than one way.
Role played by social media:
Means of getting News and latest updates on the situation
With no current and water logging, watching news on TV or getting newspapers was not possible for the first few days. And with radio signals being poor, social media accessed through mobile phones became the most popular means of staying in touch with what was happening in the city. Even with limited connectivity, having a charged mobile became such a critical asset that along with food, water and other relief material, power banks were distributed allowing people to charge their phones.
- From weather forecast updates on skymet, to latest updates on Twitter of how to commute from one point to another based on which roads the water had receded.
Helped stay in touch with family and friends
- Every time the mobile signal improved everybody tried to reach out to their loved ones by posting and commenting on Twitter, Facebook, etc., which happened instantaneously unlike messaging which takes time to send or download, thereby enabling communication before the signal went off again.
- Even as normal calls were not going through, the calls made through WhatsApp were having lesser drop rates, helping people stay in touch.
- Facebook came up with ‘Chennai Flooding safety check’ where by marking yourself safe, allowed all your friends to know that you are doing just fine.
Helped in coordinating rescue and relief efforts
- As #chennairains turned to #chennaifloods, the entire country started waking up to the magnitude of the problems faced by Chennai, help started pouring from other cities and rest of the world. A special mention to the people of Bengaluru who were not just one of the first cities to respond, but they carried out similar efforts through social media which backed the efforts carried out in Chennai through #bengaluruforchennai and #bengalurucares.
- People who were finding it difficult to contact friends, relatives or rescue teams in other parts of the city, contacted people outside of Chennai, who then in turn got in touch with media and rescue teams to get help or updates on their loved ones.
- Even though lot of emergency contact numbers were doing the rounds, due to weak signals getting through those numbers had become very difficult. As a result Twitter (with #chennairains, #chennaivolunteer, #chennairescue and #chennairainshelp trending) and Facebook became the ‘go to’ places for everything related to the rescue efforts, from listing out worst affected areas and their requirements, putting out SOS and volunteering help. Knowing where and with what to provide help, enabled common citizens to go out and volunteer in large numbers. So much so that an army official was quoted saying that this was the first time he saw more volunteers than people who needed to be rescued. They also helped in coordinating rescue efforts between the volunteers, most of whom were common people with no prior volunteering experience, the NDRF and the army. Due to this effort more areas got covered with timely rescue and delivery, of the most needed materials.
- Apart from coordinating rescue efforts, groups like Chennai Rain Relief on Facebook provided basic tips on how to rescue people and lists of do’s and don’ts.
- chennairains.org a Google spreadsheet, listing help-line numbers, aid offers, rescue requests, medical camps, volunteer details and accommodation details, was widely shared so that people could fill in details or provide necessary information to volunteers.
- Groups like The Pound, The Chennai Adoption Drive, Blue Cross Chennai and many such groups on Facebook helped in the rescue of many stranded animals. Apart from providing medical care and temporary shelters, they also helped unite pet owners with their estranged pets and find homes for the homeless animals.
- Chennai Rains, a weather blogging community put out regular weather forecast updates and crushed many a rumours that were doing the rounds.
- A crowd-sourced effort was carried out to map inundated roads in Chennai, along with information on water-logged points and flood relief camps.
- With ATM’s being down Paytm and many such websites became the go to place for anybody who wanted to donate money towards this cause.
While this year’s rains have left us with lots to ponder upon and lots to feel proud of, one thing they have done is make people aware of the power of social media. This situation has made even a person like me who has a Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest accounts, just for the sake of it, to consider putting in more efforts towards maintaining and building a network that goes beyond just close friends, so that the right people can be reached at the right time. Social media has gone beyond being just a platform for socializing to saving and rehabilitating lives
The Financial Express
The Indian Express
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