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Vardah in Chennai: Through a storm, safely (The Hindu )

A year after the devastating deluge, Chennai’s resilience has been challenged by the severe cyclonic storm, Vardah. Equipped with survival lessons from the December 2015 floods and helped by an efficient flow of disaster warning messages, the city and neighbouring districts held together through several hours of fierce winds. Chennai’s trees bore the brunt, many uprooted or torn down irredeemably. The storm hobbled the city’s infrastructure by nightfall, downing power and communication cables, blocking roads, disrupting rail and air transport, and spreading a carpet of darkness. It is to the Tamil Nadu government’s credit that basic mobility was restored overnight, and fallen trees were removed to allow some traffic to ply. Vardah also demonstrated that in the time of social media and the Internet, speedy official and community messages can influence the outcome of a catastrophe. While economic damage was inevitable, cautionary advice put out on social platforms urging people to stay safe helped reduce the number of casualties. Remarkably, the community also responded with alacrity, creating online groups and sharing messages offering help and advice. It is of course possible to learn even more by going back to citizens and harnessing data on their experience using online tools. Tropical storms are an annual affair, with the more vulnerable eastern coast taking a pummelling from 92 severe cyclones out of a total of 262 between 1891 and 1990, and several more in the years since. Such weather events are a part of the climate system, and their impact in the form of economic losses could well be greater going forward, as development creates more assets in coastal cities. It is vital, therefore, that the learnings from each event are shared nationally, and the capacity of officials and communities to manage disasters built continuously. Such an approach helps coastal regions in the United States prepare for and deal with storms better. Among the securities available to individuals in many countries is insurance against property losses. Viable policies should be made available in India too, as this would bring scrutiny on administrative measures and potentially improve outcomes. A citywide blackout also underscores the importance of rooftop solar and battery storage systems as supplementary power sources for households and corporates. Planting trees with strong root systems and pruning the canopy ahead of cyclone season could reduce uprooting. In the aftermath of Vardah, the Tamil Nadu government should restore infrastructure and provide priority relief to the families of those who lost their lives, and the worst-hit communities.

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