Surreal and terrifying: Our escape from the Chennai floods

December 8, 2015
An aerial view shows a flooded residential colony in Chennai, December 6, 2015. REUTERS photo by Anindito Mukherjee

An aerial view shows a flooded residential colony in Chennai, December 6, 2015. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

Stories of surviving calamities can read like action-movie sagas. Our escape from the Chennai floods wasn’t like that. It was slower and the escapes were scarier. We went to Chennai to attend a wedding. Later, we realized that we had to get out of town as quickly as we could. Here is some of what I saw as we waded and drove through waterlogged roads in a surreal and frightening landscape.

My husband, parents, sister and I on Tuesday afternoon posed for photos and sat through the customary Indian wedding rituals for a cousin who was getting married. As with most Indian weddings, the ceremonies were spread over a couple of days with the viratham, jaanvasam (rituals that symbolize an auspicious start to the celebration), engagement and a reception scheduled on Tuesday and the main wedding planned for Wednesday morning.

SUVphotoLate on Tuesday evening, after the jaanvasam, the five of us went to our hotel to change into evening wear for the reception. The hotel where my parents and sister were staying was about 800 metres from the kalyana mandapam, or marriage hall. Our hotel was nearby on GN Chetty Road in Chennai’s main shopping area, T Nagar. The rain began when we arrived at our hotels. In the half hour it took us to get dressed, it turned into a downpour.

Water was already gathering in the street at 6:15 in the evening when the five of us drove to our hotel under black skies that made it look like midnight. We were also clueless about how quickly the rainwater would accumulate.

The word ‘flood’ usually brings to mind water rushing in like a tidal wave. But that was not what happened in Chennai, which sits on India’s southeastern coast on low ground. Certain parts of the city, especially areas that were once lakes or floodplains of lakes that have been converted for urban use over the course of the years, are even lower. The result was sudden rises in the waterline, clogging the streets.

We saw that there was water, but we had no idea how high or low it was. As we drove on a small lane toward GN Chetty Road, we saw the water had risen three and a half feet, reaching the bottom part of the window of our SUV. Ahead of us, we saw a car nearly submerged, only the roof and a bit of window peeking out above the surface. It felt like we were in a boat. Coconuts, logs and cement blocks floated through the streets, striking the underside of the SUV, grating as they passed.

We nearly stalled in the middle of the street and were just able to reverse into a less flooded parking space in a nearby apartment complex. Utterly bewildered, none of us had a clear idea of what to do and were too frightened to think of anything to say. The silence outside was eerie. Luckily, another SUV, similarly sized as ours, made it through a high stretch of water to the next street by sticking to one side of the road. We decided to try it too.

SUVphoto3Just when we got to the middle, a group of people wading across on foot appeared, almost out of nowhere in the darkness. We had trouble crossing because the people made waves as they passed, buffeting the car. But the longer we waited, the more the water would rise.

We smelled something burning inside the car, and smoke emerged from the air-conditioning vent. The car’s engine was heating and vaporizing water, which wasn’t so bad, but the sight and smell frightened us. After waiting for people to cross on foot, we somehow made it across the street, revving the engine when needed. We made it across the street and turned into GN Chetty road towards our hotel, water splashing around our legs inside the car.

Because we couldn’t see where we were driving, we crash-climbed the median or divider along the road while turning into the hotel, jolting ourselves with a loud crunching noise. Having had enough, we turned in for the night, hoping the water would have drained out in the morning.

We were wrong. Where the water was only waist-deep in some areas, it had risen to neck-deep levels by Wednesday morning. Although we knew we might not be able to make it to the kalyana mandapam, we tried anyway. This time, though, we were driving in daylight and were careful not to go into streets where the stagnant rainwater looked too deep. But we never made it to the marriage hall. Water around it was so high that citizens had cordoned off the street it was located on to ensure nobody went in and lost their footing.

Since there was no way we could make it to the wedding, the five of us decided to head back to Bengaluru. We stopped to buy some groceries at a supermarket, but people were already stockpiling supplies and the queue was so long that we ditched the idea. Instead, we found a hotel that was relatively less crowded, had a quick meal and started back to our hometown Bengaluru in our SUV.

On the way back home, we crossed a bridge that was beginning to crumble just after we entered Poonamallee High Road, the national highway linking Chennai to Bengaluru.

SUVrain3Later we learned that the dining area of the kalyana mandapam in Chennai where my cousin’s wedding had taken place, which was located on the ground floor, was so flooded that it had to be shifted to the first floor. Our relatives, around 30 of them, had stayed back at the kalyana mandapam on Tuesday night.

They got to witness the main wedding on Wednesday but could not find a way of getting out of the venue that did not involve everyone – from my 86-year old grandfather to my nephew who had turned one only a couple of days ago – wading across waist-deep water. In the end, that’s exactly what they had to do. They had to ignore all kinds of garbage and sewage floating in the water with them. The contaminated water affected the health of the littlest members of my family first, with my young niece and nephew contracting diarrhoea from being exposed to the filthy water.

Fifteen of my family members were supposed to drive back to Bengaluru with my husband, parents, sister and me. They also lived in Bengaluru and had their own cars. But since their vehicles were almost entirely underwater in the flooded kalyana mandapam, they were forced to remain behind.

We were the lucky ones, of course. Some 280 people have died in the floods so far, according to latest official data. Others have no place to go, and won’t for some time. They’re the ones I’m thinking of now that I’m back, safe and dry, in Bengaluru.

(Photos clicked by Deepti Govind)

(Editing by Robert MacMillan. Follow Deepti on Twitter @ReutersDeepti and Robert @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.)

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