Waking Up before a Crisis : What Every Citizen Can Learn from the Chennai Floods

Chennai is flooded with water. Chennai is also flooded with warmth. People are reaching out and helping each other.

A crisis brings us together. Together, there need not be a crisis. If we pull together beforehand, we can prevent a crisis or limit the damage.Provided we think, plan, and do the right things.

What are they?

One by One.

Thinking : Thinking what? 

A good start would be to clear our minds. Get this : “Nobody ever gets credit for fixing problems that never happened” Would you agree? There is no fame and glory waiting for us. No distractions. Clarity of purpose. We do it for ourselves.

Next, ask, ” In what way are we contributing to the problem?” Yes, we must think that!

The problem begins in how we perceive our role as citizens in governance.We believe that casting a vote is the only thing to do. Who cares about things going wrong in between elections? We patiently await the next polls. Meanwhile, vested interests continue causing irreversible damage to our habitats. They pass laws and undertake actions, all of them leading to polluting our environment and endangering our ecological security.

We contribute to the problem by way of not doing things. Many times, these are things we have not taken the trouble to be even aware of. Not finding out how else can we participate in public and community concerns. Not finding out what we are entitled to. Not knowing what the law is. Not finding out how a proposed new developmental plan impacts our neighbourhood, our city. Not filing an RTI. Not writing about it. Not seeking independent sources of information. Not meeting activists. Not asking that simplest of questions, ” What is the minimum that I can do to make a difference?” That question is a good question to end this section. But there is a better candidate. Here is this question,” What am I putting up with in the short run that has big consequences in the long run?” This one should make us always think long-term.

Planning : Planning what?

If we think about the possible impact of damaging actions, we are on our way to knowing what can happen. If we know what can happen, we can prevent as much as we can and plan for the rest. For example, if the up-coming plush residential project in the neighbourhood has altered the ground level parity; we already know the monsoon rains will submerge our society premises. Can we prevent it? If we can’t, can we plan for limiting the damage? Yes, we can.

We are a part of so many redundant Whatsapp groups. People are using social media to co-ordinate rescue and relief effort. Can we plan and use the same right now so as to plan for contingencies? Of course, we can.

The scenario I describe is that of people thinking, planning and doing before the crisis strikes. A Whatsapp group or any other organized group can take charge of its neighbourhood. They can hire a specialist or a volunteer who studies topography, is into disaster management, or other mitigating services.Can you find out in the event of heavy rains, which areas of your neighbourhood are most likely to get submerged? Can you identify who are the most vulnerable people ( the sick, the elderly, the expecting mothers) if that happens? Can you plan for them first? Can you visualise a dangling wire or a shaky compound wall or a precariously poised tree posing a threat? Can you pinpoint inany given neighbourhood, which will be the higher ground in that locality? Can you figure out what would be the relatively safe route to that higher ground? Can we designate safe shelters in an emergency? Can you identify routes to hospitals and medical shops that are on higher ground? Can you have an adaptive action-plan on ‘what-to-do-if ……. strikes’ ( earthquake, bomb-blasts, floods) that makes possible a co-ordinated response? Countries simulate nuclear explosions in a computer lab and juggle with responses to multiple scenarios. I am sure technology can simulate how rains or earthquakes will impact geographical areas after the requisite measurements have been fed into the database.

All of these things can be done before a crisis strikes. We can wake up before a crisis.

In 2005, so many Mumbaikars followed the herd instinct and risked life and limb to reach home from South Mumbai, which was the safest place to be in during the deluge. They did not stay put out there. FM channels were functional.  All that was required was for someone to take charge, and give one clear, unambiguous exhortation, ” Don’t head into the unknown. Don’t head home. A safe place is higher ground wherever you are.” Nobody did that.

If somebody would have studied the effectiveness of the drainage system in South Mumbai & suburban Mumbai and compared them, they would have been in a position to foresee the possible scenario. Given how the Mumbai commuting pattern is so straight-forward, the exhortation would have been a straightforward one. Nothing of this sort happened. Everybody lost their bearings.

The German military strategist, Helmuth Von Moltke said, ” No battle plan ever survives the first contact with the enemy.” In war, the enemy makes a mockery of what is planned on paper. In disaster scenarios, we face the same challenge. We must therefore plan for what can go wrong. The most common challenge is a breakdown of communication and understanding. For every thing we plan, we must plan for a breakdown of that plan and plan a salvage operation. We must be clear on the purpose, on the top priorities, on the safest advice that can be declared as ‘fail-safe’ measures, and on the set-of-guidelines for instances where people have to use their own discretion. All of this, would of course be covered in workshops and drills related to disaster management.

To end this segment, we must plan for the unthinkable. We must plan for the worst and plan for the frailty of human response in a crisis.

Doing : Doing what? 

The more we have planned for and practised, the better we become at doing. We must execute the plan but always go by the situation on the ground. There is a danger in meticulous planning. It gives us a false sense of security. If we recognize the situation as fluid, and the reality to be messy, we will do better. Do what the plan says. But do not let the plan have the final word. The plan is a guide to effective thinking, not a substitute for it. You have the final say.  Ask, What are the assumptions being made in this plan?” Ask, ” Do the assumptions hold true?”

For instance, the evacuation plan assumed able-bodied human beings who could hold onto the rope and wade across the stream. And you have somebody with no hands. You must be able to immediately realize the plan’s inadequacy on seeing such a person. You prime yourself for it when you decide to continue thinking and scrutinising the plan at every step.

We must do keeping in mind the purpose – doing everything possible to keep people alive and safe. And sometimes, what we must do is take a leap of faith..

“A pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood”, said George S Patton. He said it in context of preparations for battle. But the same is true in peacetime for disaster scenarios and crisis situations. We must sweat it out knowing we are fixing problems so that they don’t happen or cause limited damage. Either way, others do not instantly realize how bad it could have been.

The natural response is to bask in the warmth of how people are caring for each other during the Chennai floods. The even more natural but far more challenging response is to build on that warmth. To make people act out of their care at all times as a way of life. 

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