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13 Dec 2016

Barrage of trees in Chennai - Cyclone wreaks havoc but early signs suggest city better prepared than last December

G.C. Shekhar, TT, Chennai, Dec. 12: Cyclone Vardah uprooted trees and blew off toll plazas as it cut a swathe of destruction through Chennai this afternoon, handing the city a December date with disaster for the second consecutive year.
But unlike last winter's floods that killed over 500 people in and around a city caught unawares, a better-prepared state government appeared to have been able to contain the death toll today.
Chief minister O. Panneerselvam said three persons had died but revenue officials said the toll was seven, mostly from wall collapse.
If the floodwaters had left Chennai marooned last December, some 4,000 fallen trees barricaded it today. Wind speeds of up to 120kmph flattened homes, snapped communication and power lines and knocked over cars.
Chennai airport was shut, with all flights cancelled and 44 international and 123 domestic flights diverted. Many trains were scrapped too.
The severe cyclonic storm made landfall around 3pm at a spot 10km north of the city after portending its arrival through the day with gusty winds and heavy rain.
But weather scientists said the cyclone, "very severe" with wind speeds of 120-130kmph over the Bay of Bengal, weakened slightly before landfall to 100-110kmph, gusting to 120kmph.
This evening, the administration was struggling to keep at least the main thoroughfares open for emergency service vehicles.
"Just after we had cleared the major roads of the fallen trees, a second spell of wind after the cyclone had crossed uprooted a few more, rendering our work useless," a police officer said.
"It's the worst cyclone Chennai has seen since 1996," said S. Ramanan, who retired as director of Chennai's weather office sometime after last year's December deluge. "With heavy rain forecast after the cyclone weakens, the worst is not over."
Panneerselvam, just finding his feet after the shock of his mentor Jayalalithaa's death last week, had met officials from various departments yesterday to form a contingency plan. The results showed that a ready and responsive administration can restrict the human cost.
Two fishermen were reported missing off the Andhra coast but 18 from Tamil Nadu were rescued, PTI said.
"We had been tracking the cyclone for the past few days, so the usual drill was in place," Chennai civic commissioner D. Karthikeyan said.
"We identified and evacuated the most vulnerable areas. Food packets, water and warm clothing were provided to those shifted to safer places. Last year's deluge took us by surprise but this time we were prepared."
Officials said the damage could be assessed only after the winds subsided tomorrow. "We responded to emergencies like people trapped in vehicles because of fallen trees. The damage to infrastructure like transformers, lampposts and roads can be assessed when things quieten a bit," Karthikeyan said.
Chennai had gone into a protective shutdown, just as it had last Monday in anticipation of Jayalalithaa's passing.
Shops and restaurants, already suffering from the cash crisis and the two days of closure following Jayalalithaa's death, were shut because of the cyclone warning. They found their signboards blown away.
Officials said the neighbouring districts of Kancheepuram and Villupuram too took a heavy battering. 

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