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Five Things You Should Know about the Catastrophic Flooding in Chennai

Mass evacuations, a submerged airport and questions about the city’s urban planning

Residents evacuate their homes in Chennai during catastrophic floods. (Xinhua/Xinhua Press/Corbis)
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A short time ago, parts of India were engulfed in an overwhelming heat wave that killed thousands. Now, the city of Chennai in eastern India is in the grips of its own natural disaster with flooding that has killed hundreds, closed down the city’s airport and forced mass evacuations. Here are five things to know about the floods:

Torrential Rains Are Responsible

Heavy downpours have been plaguing the area since November 12, writes Nida Najar for The New York Times. Throughout the month the region got 40.31 inches of rain, writes AccuWeather.com’s Eric Leister. But things took a deadly turn this week, with 12 inches of rain on December 1 alone—the most to fall on a single day in over 100 years.

Flooding Has Virtually Shut Down the City 

Thousands have now been forced to evacuate, and electricity and telephone lines are out in many areas. So social media has come to the help of flood victims and their relatives. Facebook has activated its Safety Check feature to help loved ones check in with one another, reports TIME’s Rishi Iyengar. Citizens of Chennai are also using the hashtag #ChennaiRainsHelp to mobilize support and find much-needed resources.

This Isn’t the First Time

The low-lying, coastal city has been hit by large floods before. In 1943, catastrophic flooding decimated the city’s slums, and a 2005 flood led to a deadly stampede at a relief center for flood victims. Unpredictable cyclonic activity is the source of these floods, writes C. Shivakumar for The New Indian Express, but that doesn’t mean the city’s floods are entirely unexpected—there have been six large ones since 1943. 

Chennai’s Closed Airport Looks More Like a River 

Among the most striking images from the flood are those of Chennai’s airport, whose runways now look more like rivers. The airport, which was built on a flood plain, is becoming a symbol of the dangers of urban sprawl and disaster-insensitive urban planning for critics.

Officials tell NDTV’s Swati Thiyagarajan that the airport, which is the country’s fourth busiest, is the natural destination for floodwaters when rivers overflow. Built on a floodplane, the airport was doomed to flood.

Today’s Floods, Tomorrow’s Lessons?

Is poor urban planning and design in Chennai making the impacts of floods even worse for its growing population? The city has certainly struggled with its proclivity towards floods—Shivakumar reports that despite multiple calls for better flood management, the city has failed to implement suggestions that could make flooding less of a threat. That’s common among cities with aging or damaged flood control infrastructure, writes a group of civil engineers from China’s Wah Engineering College. They note that rising construction costs and budget constraints can make it hard to identify the infrastructure that needs the most help. 

Analysts agree that cities need better urban planning strategies to withstand disasters like flooding. But perhaps before its next flood, Chennai can take a page from another disaster-hit city: Guiuan, Philippines. The city, which sustained severe damage during Typhoon Haiyan, is embracing the reality of its storm-swept status and has decided to build a storm-resistant school complete with community emergency center. 

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