CHENNAI, India (Reuters) - Rains eased in the flood-hit city of Chennai in southern India on Friday, raising hopes that rescue efforts could pick up, after the death of 18 patients at a private hospital added to the official toll of 280 confirmed killed in the disaster.
The commercial airport of Chennai will also be partly opened on Saturday after being shut for the past three days, which should help move workers and relief materials badly needed in the city of six million.
Flood waters that had started to recede began rising again around noon after a new cloudburst that sent residents running for shelter under trees and in shopfronts. Parts of the flat, coastal city remained under as much as eight feet (2.5 meters) of water for a fourth day.
Many residents have spent days stranded on rooftops since more than 345 mm (14 inches) of rain fell over 24 hours on Dec. 1, the most since the British ruled the city in Tamil Nadu state, then known as Madras, 100 years ago.
India’s fourth-largest city, Chennai has boomed in the 21st century as a center for vehicle factories and IT outsourcing. But trash-filled drains and building on lake beds in the rush to industrialization and prosperity has made it more prone to flooding.
Despite combined rescue efforts by the military and civilian emergency services, help has yet to reach many areas. Residents were angered by reports that authorities had released water from brimming lakes without much warning.
In one of the most shocking incidents, 18 patients in the intensive care unit of the MIOT International hospital have died since Wednesday, Health Secretary J. Radhakrishnan said, after floods took out generators running life-support systems. An enquiry will be conducted into the tragedy, he said.
Military helicopters dropped food to residents stranded on rooftops and the defense ministry doubled to 4,000 the number of soldiers deployed to help the rescue effort.
Facing criticism for its handling of the crisis, a battery of senior Tamil Nadu officials defended the government at a press conference at the state’s water-logged headquarters on Friday evening.
They said authorities have so far evacuated 127,580 people. More than half of them from banks of rivers are now sheltered in relief camps and are being treated for fever and infections to prevent an epidemic.
V. Raghunathan, 60, a manager at an interior design company living in southern Chennai, complained about the lack of warning before flood gates were opened on some of Chennai’s 30 waterways.
“The authorities didn’t give us adequate information about water being released from a nearby lake. Before we could take action my car had sunk and I had to move to the first floor of my apartment.”
The Tamil Nadu public works department said it did issue warnings, but the information apparently did not reach the public because of a breakdown in media and phone communications. The Chennai edition of The Hindu newspaper did not go to press on Thursday, apparently for the first time in 137 years.
The government restored some commercial flights to a naval air base near the city, and the Airports Authority of India said the Chennai airport would be open for day-time operations for relief flights.
Car factories that export around the world, however, stayed shut.
Affected carmakers such as Renault, Nissan Motor Hyundai Motor and component maker Apollo Tyres will decide on Saturday whether to resume production. BMW will keep a plant closed until Dec. 7.
A steadily rising number of families sought safety on the city’s Basion Bridge flyover, many of them slum dwellers whose homes had been washed away. They sat in the open, carrying little bundles of prized possessions - soiled rupee notes and identity cards.
A small van that arrived at the top of the flyover bearing water packets and biscuits was immediately overrun by people desperate for relief.
Rajarwadi, who sold vegetables by the roadside, managed to grab a packet of biscuits for her daughter. She hadn’t seen any government officials helping people camped out on the busy flyover on Thursday even though it was in the middle of the city.
Jose Sebastian, the head of a local construction company, said the biggest worry for his volunteer group was areas where the water level was too high for them to deliver food.
“We feel rather helpless,” he said. “We have lots of food, we have volunteers ready to go, but we don’t have the boats.”
Additional reporting by Sandhya Ravishankar in Chennai, Sudarshan Varadhan and Rachel Chitra in Bengaluru and Rupam Jain Nair, Sankalp Phartiyal and Mayank Bhardwaj in New Delhi; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel and Krisha N. Das; Editing by Nick Macfie, Larry King