16 December 2015 06:38:43 IST

The flood fury... and after

TE Raja Simhan on how the Chennai airport was brought back to life

J Prasanna, a software professional, was looking forward to his maiden trip to the US. But the flood waters unleashed by the unprecedented rains that hit Chennai in the first week of December nearly crash-landed his dreams of visiting Uncle Sam — on December 3 his flight from Chennai was cancelled.

It was not just Prasanna’s flight that was cancelled. Thousands of passengers saw their travel plans go awry after the Chennai airport was flooded with water from the Adyar River that passes under the second runway. In fact, a day earlier at 8 pm, the last flight took off before water from the river flooded the aerodrome. The usually buzzing airport, which witnesses over 350 flight movements every day, had to be shut down for four days from the night of December 2, as there was nearly 5 feet of water in certain places and the runway looked like a lake.

A devastating effect The flooding had a devastating effect with the airport cancelling 66 arrivals and 53 departures late on December 2, and early December 3. Nearly 40 aircraft, mostly belonging to domestic airlines, were grounded at the airport. The cancellations led to chaos with over 2,000 passengers — both domestic and international — stranded. “It was like a huge market with so many restless people,” says Prasanna, who left for the US three days later from Bengaluru. In addition to the passengers, nearly 3,000 employees working for different airlines and agencies were stuck inside the airport as the grim situation outside had brought the city to its knees and disrupted all modes of transport.

As the water level rose, critical equipment like the radar was submerged and a private jet was carried away from the hangar to a corner. Adding to the problem, many unusual visitors like snakes, buffaloes and cows — both dead and alive — entered the aerodrome along with the flood waters. But Chennai Airport Director Deepak Shastri, an ex-Army man, led from the front to bring back the airport to normalcy. Perhaps his ice cool nerves helped. Before joining the Airports Authority of India, he had served 10 years in the Indian Army in the Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. He is an alumnus of the Officers Training Academy, Chennai.

Army experience came in handy for Shastri and also the fact that this was the third posting where he had to deal with nature’s fury. The first was in 2005 when he was the director of Pune airport, which was used extensively during the Mumbai floods. The second was at Visakhapatnam during Cyclone Hudhud. He was the Regional Executive Officer (Southern Region) of AAI. “I knew something big was coming when the first rains lashed Chennai on November 15. We were geared to handle the heavy rains and had all the contingency measures in place. But the flood from Adyar River on December 2 was unexpected and we were completely taken aback. We did not get any prior warning on water being let out from the Chembarambakkam Lake,” he says. Soon things were going out of control.

Regaining control “We worked round-the-clock to ensure that everything was under control. Our employees were rock solid in the hour of crisis. There was a well-planned coordinated effort among all the stakeholders during the crisis,” Shastri says. His first priority was to take care of the stranded passengers and employees. With airlines stopping their operations, food was arranged for all from the airport kitchen, which normally supplies for flights. Some of the passengers were evacuated to the Arakkonam air base by the Army and were on their way to their destinations.

There were medical emergencies too but no doctors. The patients had to be taken to the city. “After lot of struggle we found vehicles,” says Shastri. He threw open all the retiring rooms and asked his officials to provide bed and blankets to children and elders. As rains eased on the third day, nearly 20 pumps were brought in to drain the water from flooded areas.

The extent of damage is being ascertained even as aircraft manufacturers are likely to seek insurance claims of nearly ₹200 crore. For Shastri and his team, the big sigh of relief came on December 5 when technical flights were tested and the next day domestic flights started operations. On December 8, the airport was back in action, fully.

When asked if being an Army man helped him, Shastri says: “It is all about resilience of mind, not giving up and being ready to take up the challenge. When there is no fear in mind, and it is trained to take bullets in the Army, any challenge, however tough it is, can be handled.”