It has been ten days since the Cyclone Vardah ravaged the city of Chennai and its surroundings, but the howling sound that it came with, still resounds in many an ear.
Chennai had been having less than normal rainfall this year, the year of 2016. Unlike last year when there were excessive rains, even causing floods; this year it had been the opposite. From mid October to December, Chennai usually gets rains from the North East monsoon winds. Sometimes, cyclones formed in the region also cause rains in the city during this period. But this year, the period had been witnessing mostly wintry dry weather with very few spells of rains.
Therefore, when cyclone Nada formed during the first week of December, there were hopes that it would bring the much needed rains and give some respite. But cyclone Nada withered away very soon, fetching only a few showers for the city. Buzz of another depression in the Bay of Bengal, rekindled hopes of rains for the city. If that depression were to turn into a cyclone, it would be named Vardah. Vardah, in Urdu, meant a red rose. A rose that was luring, but in turn, would rampage the greenery of the city.
Cyclone Vardah, after showing its prowess over the Andaman & Nicobar islands, intensified further and now moved towards the Indian mainland. Initial reports suggested that it might move in a north-easterly direction towards the Andhra-Orissa coast. Chennaiites, who were already sad that cyclone Nada had been inconsequential, decided not to keep any hopes from the upcoming cyclone. Meanwhile, cyclone Vardah stealthily gained strength as it approached the coast.
A few days before the cyclonic storm was to make landfall, it seemed that perhaps it would cross somewhere near South Andhra coast and that Chennai was likely to get some good rains. Hopes increased and Chennaiites were eager to welcome Vardah. Ironically, in Tamil, varda means, ‘is it coming?’. A question that the people of the city had been asking about the cyclone. Also, ‘varuma, varaada’ (will it come or will it not) was on everybody’s mind. Only on the previous day, i.e. on Sunday, the 11th of December, 2016, it was ascertained that the cyclone would cross a coast not far from Chennai. Warnings were issued, schools and colleges were given holidays, many private offices too shut down. Vardah was coming. But doubts remained, for there was hardly a drop of rainfall during the day. But by late evening on Sunday, there were few showers of rain.
Monday, 12th December, 2016, dawned on Chennai with rains and slight to moderate winds. Having been in Chennai for the past few years, I had been witnessing these cyclonic winds and rains almost every year. But those times, the cyclone would make landfall far far away from Chennai. What I would experience later in the day, was something that I had never seen before.
What I would experience later in the day, was something that I had never seen before.
As the day progressed, the winds got stronger. The electricity was cut off after 10 am. I was keeping a check on the updates being given out by the weather portals and news sites on my phone. The winds kept getting fiercer. Trees were getting uprooted. A little past 11 am, A few trees fell in our apartment complex too, part of a compound wall collapsed. The wind kept getting stronger. Now I could hear that howling sound – the sound that I had heard only in movies till now. It was loud, very loud and it was quite scary. We had already bolted all the doors and windows of the house. Yet, the power of the wind was such, its force rattled the doors and windows. The wind didn’t come alone, it brought in rain – the much needed rain that Chennai was waiting for. But it was splashing the water around all over and that too with full force.
I soon noticed that in one of the rooms, water was seeping in through the closed windows. Oh how I wished I’d paid attention to that replacement windows guide I saw not long ago, I knew my windows were old and not entirely functional anymore, but I didn’t realize the potential consequences of ignoring that fact until now. It was the only room that faced the Western side from where the strong gale was coming. The wind was splashing the rain water on the windows and through the gaps around the window frames, water was entering. I quickly brought in some old clothes, to try to arrest the water near the windows and prevent it from flooding the room. For the next one hour that afternoon, I was constantly wringing out the cold water out of the old drenched clothes into a bucket and putting them back near the window frames. The wind kept howling with full force, the rain was pounding and I was praying.
As time passed, the force came down. Around 2 pm, the rain subsided and the wind gradually calmed down. The eye of the storm was now crossing over the city. I had read earlier in the day that when the eye of the storm is crossing, there would be no rain and the wind would be calm. This could last for a couple of hours, before the winds and rains would resume, as the rest of the storm system would cross.
The eye of the storm, the first time I heard about it was in the movie ‘Day after Tomorrow’. Of course, that was a scary phase as everything would freeze in an instant, when the eye of the storm crossed. But here, it felt like a temporary relief, some time to ease on the breathing, to calm down the nerves. A look around the apartment complex revealed that some vehicles were damaged with trees falling on them, some window glasses were broken and in some houses – water had entered into the houses through windows and balconies.
As warnings were being issued that people should not venture out now, as the gale and rain could restart, a quick assessment revealed that there had been an extensive damage all around. After about three hours, there was slight wind and rain, but very little compared to what we had witnessed in the afternoon. The force of the rest of the storm was felt elsewhere.
Vardah left Chennai in extreme greenery. The city was covered with uprooted trees, trees that were partially damaged, small branches that were scattered all around and leaves strewn all over. This was something that Chennai hadn’t seen in decades or perhaps centuries? For me, this was a first time experience.
It has been a fight to get back to normalcy in Chennai and other affected regions since then. It’s heartening to know that close to one lakh trees were either uprooted or damaged in the cyclone. Many electricity poles had been uprooted too, because of which electricity could not be restored for days in many areas.
Since then, the weather has cleared and it’s been dry and sunny. But, Chennai has some testing times ahead. Cyclone Vardah did not result in enough rains. With deficit rains and the loss of such a huge number of trees, it is going to be a very difficult summer next year. Although, many programmes are being planned by various organisations to replant the lost trees, it would take some time to bring back Chennai’s green cover.
As for me, the one thing that is going to be entrenched in my mind is that howling sound, it was really loud and very very scary.
These are my experiences of a cyclonic storm of such an enormity, I had never experienced before. Please do share your experiences, if any, of being in the midst of a natural calamity. Your comments are always looked forward to.