CHENNAI: Thousands of rescuers raced to evacuate residents from deadly flooding on Thursday, as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi headed to the southern state of Tamil Nadu to survey the devastation.
More than 40,000 people have been rescued in recent days after record rains lashed the coastal state, worsening weeks of flooding that has killed 269 people.
But many more are still feared marooned, with much of the state capital Chennai – a city of 4.6 million people – submerged, despite a let-up in the rains overnight.
“This rainfall has broken a 100-year record and has created an emergency situation in Chennai,” Home Minister Rajnath Singh told parliament after days of torrential rain led to a dramatic worsening of the weeks-long crisis.
India’s Air Force evacuated thousands of stranded passengers from Chennai’s international airport, which remained closed for a second day, its runway under water.
Rescuers took advantage of a lull in the rains to pour into the state overnight, joining thousands already there in a race against time to reach those who are stranded.
“The situation has improved but we are sending more teams so that we can cover as many areas as possible,” National Disaster Response Force director general OP Singh told reporters.
A naval warship loaded with inflatable boats, medical supplies and diving equipment arrived in Chennai on Thursday, as Modi said he was heading to the city.
The prime minister cited the floods as a consequence of climate change in his weekly radio address on Sunday, a day before meeting other world leaders at a global climate summit in Paris.
He has repeatedly called on developed countries to do more to combat the impact of global warming on the world’s poor, who experts say will be disproportionately affected.
India suffers severe flooding every year during the annual monsoon rains from June to September.
Poor phone networks were hampering rescue efforts, while washed out bridges were slowing delivery of relief supplies, National Disaster Management Authority senior official Anurag Gupta said.
“Our top priority is to rescue marooned people on the first and second floors and getting them to safer, drier places,” he told AFP.
Although water levels were dropping in some areas, a main lake in Chennai flooded overnight, inundating new areas of the capital, according to the Press Trust of India.
Schools stayed closed along with some factories in Chennai, a centre for auto manufacturing and IT outsourcing.
Authorities had told private companies to declare Thursday and Friday a holiday for workers due to the flooding.
Migrant workers told of sleeping on railway station floors for days, surviving on biscuits and unable to return home elsewhere in the country after passenger train services were suspended because of the floods.
“We came to the station two days ago, but all trains have been cancelled.
There is nothing to eat, no money left. We are surviving on biscuits and prayers,” Saleem told PTI, using only one name.
More rains forecast
The heaviest rainfall in more than 100 years has devastated swathes of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, with thousands forced to leave their submerged homes and schools, offices and a regional airport shut for a second day Thursday.
At least 269 people had been killed in the state since heavy rains started in the beginning of November, said India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh, although no deaths have been reported in the latest deluge.
State capital Chennai has received more than 330 millimeters of rain over the last 24 hours, which is significantly higher than the regional average for the entire month of December, Singh said.
While the downpour eased early on Thursday, the Indian Meteorological Department has predicted more heavy rain in several parts of the state through the rest of the week. The rains have been caused by a depression in the Bay of Bengal, the agency said.
The Adyar river, which runs through Chennai before draining into the Bay of Bengal, is flowing above a danger mark.
An aerial view of Chennai showed low-lying neighborhoods as well the city’s airport almost completely submerged. The Airport Authority of India said that the airport is likely to be closed until Sunday.
Dozens of trains to the state have been delayed this week, and on Thursday the main train station was so heavily flooded that it had to shut down operations. Singh said that railways officials convened an emergency meeting to get the station back on track quickly.
Even though hundreds of army, navy and local police and fire department rescueers were helping evacuate those trapped in their homes, Twitter and other social media were flooded with calls for help from across the city.
Most of those still trapped were either the elderly or people with very young children.
The state government cut power to several parts of Chennai as a safety measure to prevent electrocutions.
Most deaths in the last month of rains have been due to drowning, electrocution and wall collapses.
India’s main monsoon season runs from June through September, but the period between October to December – also called the retreating monsoon – brings the most rainfall to India’s southeastern coastal areas.