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Chennai disaster touches local woman

By Carolyn B. Edwards BCC Staff Writer

Pictured: Rhonda Balsley

Photo courtesy Rhonda Balsley
Thousands of homes in Chennai, India, have been destroyed by flooding in recent weeks.

When Rhonda Balsley of Pipe Creek left Texas for India in November, she was looking forward to learning about a new culture, experimenting with new foods, and seeing a part of the world new to her. She did not expect to end up in the center of one of the world's disasters.
Sent on a three-month assignment for the San Antonio company she works for, Balsley spent the first few weeks settling in to the job and adjusting to Indian life in Chennai, the country's fourth most populous city.
Then the rains began, filling area reservoirs to the brim. One report noted 35 lakes in the state of Tamil Nadu had risen to dangerous levels. At least one dam broke, sending a wall of water downstream.
The military stepped in to assist with the disaster.
Auto manufacturers, IT outsourcing firms and the state-run Chennai Petroleum refinery shut down due to the heavy flooding.
Train services and flights were cancelled. The navy commandeered fishing boats to assist with rescue efforts.
Balsley and her co-workers were confined to their hotel for two days where they awaited news. Their office building, located near a lake, had flooded and sustained damage.
The city was without power. "Even though we could get out of the hotel, very few businesses were operational because of the lack of electricity. The Internet wasn't working for the credit card machines, and the ATMs were down." For awhile, Balsley was called "The Bank of Rhonda" by her friends because she was the only one with any rupees.
The group managed to travel to a shopping center where they stocked up on healthy snack foods and batteries. "We found all that we needed except candles. Everyone was sold out."
News agencies have reported around 300 people dead. However, a local TV station reported "11 Lakh people have been rescued." That's 1.1 million people, Balsley explained.
Many of Chennai's poorest people lived in palm leaf huts next to the river. Their homes have been destroyed.
"I met several local residents who sheltered at the hotel," said Balsley. "One man's home was flooded chest deep within 30 minutes when a dam on the river broke. He and his son were rescued with a lifeboat. Another had to swim underwater in his home to reach the door and get outside where the ground was higher. Two others left their homes in waist high water with their small children on their shoulders, carrying clothes and computers."
Balsley had been enjoying getting acquainted with southern Indian food, including a flat bread called roti, a variety of rice dishes, and raita - cucumber and onion in yoghurt to cool the tongue when eating spicy entrees.
As a result of the flooding, the hotel quickly began to run out of food, reduced the number of operating restaurants and cut the number of menu items. Prices also went up.
Many residents of Chennai remain without shelter, fresh food or drinking water.
Chennai, a city of 4.6 million, is located on the southeast coast of India. It is the capital of Tamil Nadu. It has suffered from flooding before, but this flood is the worst in 100 years. Sixteen inches of rain fell on Dec. 1, adding to the 47 inches that had already fallen in November, three times the monthly average.
National and international relief efforts are underway, with the restoration of Internet service playing a key role in communication efforts. The city has lost billions of dollars worth of job services and infrastructure. One estimate placed the economic losses at $2.25 billion dollars, with the biggest losses in auto manufacturing, IT services and pharmaceuticals.
Piles of garbage, sewage and lack of fresh water have health officials concerned about the possible outbreak of epidemics.