CHENNAI, India — In the wake of the devastating floods following record-breaking rainfall in Chennai, the capital of southern Tamil Nadu state, and other districts on the east coast of India, the Church in India is mobilizing its resources to extend support to the hundreds of thousands of flood victims.
Major Catholic charities like Caritas India and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and other Catholic institutions and parishes have been racing against time to reach relief to the distraught families due to the floods.
News reports quoting police sources confirmed on Dec. 10 at least 514 deaths from the floods that have wreaked havoc in the coastal districts of Tami Nadu, following incessant rains from mid-November, which culminated in the deluge of Dec. 1.
While Chennai recorded a foot of rain on the day, its suburb of Tambaram reported more than 18 inches of rainfall during 24 hours, giving the international airport the appearance of an ocean with aircraft floating around. The flood in Chennai was exacerbated by the release of water from overflowing Chembarambakkam Lake, which submerged low-lying areas of the city under several feet of water.
The deluge washed away thousands of huts and slums located on river banks and submerged other houses and businesses, even in posh buildings and apartment complexes, up to two floors in height. With the international airport also under water, along with railway tracks and roads, Chennai remained marooned from the rest of the nation for days.
“The need of the hour calls us to express solidarity with the flood-affected suffering families and communities and to contribute our mite for their relief and rehabilitation,” Cardinal Baselios mar Cleemis, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), said in a Dec. 7 appeal, seeking to mobilize support for the flood-relief work of Caritas India.
“Normally, this is time for organizing carols. But now, we are struggling to reach relief to the needy people,” Father S.J. Antonysamy, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Madras (Chennai)-Mylapore, told the Register Dec. 10.
“So we have decided to cancel all the Christmas celebrations because of the flood,” Father Antonysamy added.
Earlier on Dec. 4, this correspondent accompanied Archbishop George Antonysamy of Madras-Mylapore for distribution of relief material by Caritas India to families around St. Antony Church at Park Town in downtown Chennai. Along with the century-old church, the adjacent cemetery was also under water four days after the deluge.
On the previous night, this correspondent managed to reach the church located at Puthupet, on the banks of Cooum River in downtown Chennai, after traversing flooded streets with a help of a bold driver.
“As the water started gushing into our house at 3am, we rushed out of the house. We are lucky to find shelter here,” Lalita Krishnamurthy, a Hindu, told the Register from St. Anne School, which sheltered dozens of the refugees in the area. “Everything in our house is under water,” said Kirshnamuthry, who spoke with her mother and younger brother around her.
“We decided to open our centers to these people, as they had nowhere to go. Both our community hall [of the church] and the convent school are sheltering people,” Father Isaac Newton, assistant parish priest of St. Antony Church, told the Register, as he coordinated the fixing of a rented generator in the church, as they had been without electricity for three days.
With the whole area under water, electric supply had been cut to avoid electrocutions. That was the story of several suburbs: houses and business under water, with no electricity, for days.
The power cuts and flooding resulted in a medical tragedy, when 18 patients died at the intensive care unit of the elite Miot International Hospital. Generators failed, cutting off oxygen supply to the critically ill patients. The deaths occurred after floodwaters breached the hospital’s compound wall and damaged its power units.
“Several of our churches have been under water. All the parishes are engaged in the relief work,” said Archybishop Antonysamy. He added that the parishes are providing support and volunteers for the Caritas and CRS relief teams, as truckloads of relief materials arrived from dioceses in neighboring Kerala state.
In a Dec. 9 statement, Caritas India elaborated about its relief work in four severely hit districts of Chennai, Cuddalore, Villupuram and Kanchipuram. Its relief workers there had distributed relief kits of food, drinking water, clothing and emergency hygiene material to more than 16,000 people in 3,200 families located in 24 villages.
“A lot of relief is being done by different agencies. Our goal is to reach out to the needy in difficult situations and the unreached,” Father Frederick D’Souza, Caritas India director, told the Register. Caritas, he said, plans to extend relief material to 36,000 families by Christmas.
Father D’Sousa pointed out that “the flood has wreaked havoc and poses a great challenge to reach out to the needy and the vulnerable sections with livelihood and shelter programs.”
Rekha Shetty, CRS India director for disaster management, said that CRS has already distributed emergency relief kits to 2,400 families in the worst-affected Cuddolore district. This includes food vouchers and kits of tarpaulins, blankets, plastic mats, kitchen sets and hygiene material.
While distribution of 2,000 more kits in progress in different areas, Shetty added that CRS is conducting assessment surveys to identify areas and needs of the victims in remote areas of Chennai.
Meanwhile, the unprecedented deluge and the devastation in Chennai and other districts of Tamil Nadu came into sharp focus at last week’s climate-change summit Paris.
Several delegates spoke about the floods in Chennai to urge negotiators to take firm decisions to mitigate climate change quickly. And French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who chaired the negotiations, expressed his solidarity with those affected by the torrential rainfall in Chennai.
Register correspondent Anto Akkara filed this report from Chennai, India